Where we screwed up – and where we went wrong
July 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
So this should be a short-ish post, just some thoughts on how the Lib Dems should be looking at and assessing their time in government. “What went badly” is an obvious question – and one that will surely dominate party thinking for some time (at least, it certainly ought to). What I wish to propose, however, is that this question is actually two in disguise, and that we should accept that both need answering and thinking about separately. The two questions, which I am going to re-frame as “where did we screw up?” and “what did we do wrong?”, are subtly but vitally different ones.
What I mean by “where did we screw up” is where we failed politically and electorally. The examples are myriad and there is no need to reiterate them here; one shouldn’t sign pledges and break them, one shouldn’t campaign next to a massive poster with a “VAT bombshell” on it and then agree to a steep rise in VAT, and the less said about “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” as a message the better. However, on many of these the thing that was most wrong was the politics. The tuition fees policy, for example, was morally not wholly unacceptable when negotiating with one of two main parties both of whom were determined to push the burden of paying for higher education onto the shoulders of students. It was a policy I disagreed with – my belief that higher education should be funded from general taxation remains unshaken, and indeed my first experience of real political campaigning was opposing those cuts – but one that was a disaster for the Liberals primarily because of its implications for trust more than for its implications for immediate human hardship. We also failed to produce an independent narrative to the Conservative one on the economy, something that should have, even within the constraints of coalition, been a priority. It was always Liberal policy that public spending should be allowed to rise again as the economy improved – that the worst of the cuts were a sacrifice for the crisis not a commitment to a permanently withered safety net. This message was too infrequently wheeled out, in favour of defending the immediate decisions being made. The Liberal Democrats looked economically lost, and paid the price. In short, we screwed up.
So then, if that covers that, why am I positing “what did we do wrong?” as a separate question? Put plainly, what I mean by the second question is that we need to think about where we failed the country, regardless of the effects on party. Posing this question means accepting that we did in some places fail to provide the best deal for the country that the coalition could have offered, which will be difficult – but necessary. We lost few votes for failing to properly oppose secret courts, but there is no doubt that our weakness there was a failure. More importantly, we failed huge numbers of people by not ensuring more compassion in reforms of the benefit system and local government. For all the good Norman Lamb did in improving NHS guidelines on mental health, ultimately the coalition’s record as a whole on the issue was poor, as a result of local government cuts leaving families without social workers or the help they needed to access cash-strapped mental health services. For the disabled and the out of work, testing regimes for benefit claims became excessively aggressive. Subjected to the increasingly dictatorial powers of job centres and employment assessors, the death toll – on which the government is still trying to avoid publishing the statistics – should be a reminder that our actions had very real and painful consequences. Some of the worst aggression of the Tory-run DWP we could and should have prevented. I don’t honestly think it would have helped us electorally – we’d still have been blamed for a great deal. But that’s really not the point. Not only is the increasing ability of job centres to force people to work without wages and sanction those who do not painful, it cuts at the core of liberal values. Someone who is offered the choice between “work-fare” and starvation is not being offered a choice, they are being offered a route into temporary enslavement. We need to think about our working and negotiating practices within the coalition to think whether we could have been more successful at preventing some of these profoundly illiberal measures.
In short, we need to analyse the coalition from two major perspectives; firstly, where we failed ourselves as a party, but secondly, where we failed most catastrophically or painfully to get our values applied into government, with welfare and local government social services at the top of the latter list. Only by ensuring that we carefully look through our strategies for both how we governed AND how we explained ourselves will the Liberal Democrats manage to learn the full range of possible lessons for the future.