Why the Lib Dems shouldn't enjoy Tory retoxification too much

Lib Dem ministers are in danger of looking like helpless passengers in a right-wing government.

Political strategists are obsessed with messages that "cut through". They mean the bits that somehow penetrate the consciousness of those people who don’t spend all their time thinking about politics, which is pretty much everyone.

Inconveniently, politicians are often surrounded by other politicians and journalists. They (we) are often as bad as each other at remembering an axiomatic truth about whatever it is they (we) have just said or written: most of the time, no-one cares.

So I do not mean to belittle the Liberal Democrats at their annual conference when I say that most of what passes as "news" – and what animates the chatter in the hotel bars of an evening – will skim off the surface of voters’ minds without leaving a mark.

I’d guess that two things have "cut through" in politics in the last week. First, that Nick Clegg is sorry. It might not be entirely clear what he is sorry for. We know he regrets making a pledge not to raise university tuition fees when he wasn’t remotely sure he could keep it. We know also that he stands by the policy on tuition fees currently in place. He is frustrated because the episode haunts his party, casting him as the emblematic face of broken promises and making it impossible to get any other messages heard. So, after much deliberation, Clegg decided to lob a contrition grenade – hardly a precise weapon, but sufficient, he hopes, to enable him to change the subject.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s aides insist his video apology is not meant to solve an image problem overnight (and plainly it hasn’t). The test of its effectiveness, they say, will only come towards the end of the parliament, when campaigning for a general election starts up. The hope is that, by then, it will seem tired and petty for Clegg’s rivals to attack him as the king of paltry pledges. He’s said he’s sorry – not a lot of politicians do that – what more do you want? It’s a pretty optimistic line, but probably fractionally better than the alternative, which was not apologising.

There are voters who will never forgive Clegg, whatever he says or does. They are lost to the party for the foreseeable future. As for the rest, given that one of the few things everyone knew about the Lib Dem leader is that he broke a promise, it is probably a small net positive that one of the other few things people now know is that he is also sorry. The details don’t matter so much. That’s cut through.

The second thing that has probably registered on most people’s political radars is that a senior Conservative member of the cabinet might or might not have called a police officer "a fucking pleb". Quite how toxic that is for the Cameron project hardly needs spelling out – it underlines the image of the Prime Minister as surrounded by a haughty, wealthy clique that is out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. Worse, it gives the impression that they despise public servants. Whether or not Andrew Mitchell actually said the words attributed to him – and he denies it – is hardly relevant. What counts is that it resonates as the sort of thing a millionaire, ex-banker Tory might be expected to say. Unfair, maybe. But that’s how cut through works.

The strong impression I get from speaking to senior Lib Dems here in Brighton is that they think Cameron ought to have jumped on the whole episode harder and faster. He should, they suggest, have seized it as an opportunity to trumpet his abhorrence at the attitudes attributed to his chief whip, declaring that there is no place for such language in a modern Conservative party. It is probably too late now. Whether Mitchell survives or not, the damage is done.

The Lib Dems aren’t too upset about that. It suits them to be seen as the reasonable, down-to-earth, humble face of the coalition as distinct from the moneyed arrogance of their partners. Predictably, Vince Cable exploited the opportunity to salt the Tory wound in precisely that way by proudly declaring himself to be a "pleb" in his conference speech. One senior Lib Dem, wearing a broad grin, yesterday described the whole Mitchell episode to me as  "dynamite!" A conference stall selling Lib Dem memorabilia sold out of badges announcing "I’m sorry" in the first days of the conference; "pleb" badges quickly replaced them as the must-have accessory.

But the relish with which Lib Dems are enjoying watching the Conservatives re-contaminate their brand does not sit entirely comfortably with the hope that Clegg’s apology will win the party a new audience.

In theory, it should be possible for the two episodes to cut through simultaneously in a way that helps the junior coalition partner. "Behold," the Lib Dems cry, "what we have to put up with! Yes, we made some mistakes, but aren't you glad we're here to rein these beastly Tories in. Imagine what they’d be like without us. The horror! We may not have won every battle - we handled that tuition fees thing all wrong - and yet we are winning some battles too." Then they hope their message of fairer taxes - making the wealthy carry more of the burden of austerity - will be heard and earn them some political credit.

But Tory toxicity is not specific to any policy. It is also contagious. It is a cultural apparatus that surrounds great tranches of the population, especially in the north and Scotland, as well as many younger voters and minority communities (as some glum Tories regretfully concede in private). It is a kind of political inoculation against putting a cross in a certain box come polling day. It is the force that stopped David Cameron from winning a majority. In that sense it is obvious that the Lib Dems should want to nurture the most vicious caricature of their governing allies – and hazardous.

There is ample evidence that the junior coalition party struggles to assert its identity in partnership with a much mightier political beast. Attempts at "differentiation" to overcome that problem have focused largely on policy. But individual policy rarely cuts through – especially when the question of credit and blame for good government in this parliament is largely dependent on the performance of the economy.

There is always the prospect that the Lib Dems are seen to be gathering up only crumbs of policy compensation in exchange for complicity in a largely Conservative project. And in that case, reveling in Tory toxicity is not risk-free.

While there is some disappointment in Brighton that Mitchell’s story has blown the conference out of the headlines, there are still a large number of people of in the party who see the  "pleb" episode as anything other than an open goal – and they’ll keep banging the ball in. It is hard to begrudge them that opportunity at their annual conference, since the occasion is all about celebrating the party’s distinctiveness and independence. But then the business of government must resume and the Tories will not have ignored the pleasure that was taken in their discomfort nor will they forget it. The task of managing coalition effectively, demonstrating that it can be a functional system of government, is as important a prize for the third party as differentiation from the Tories.

The lesson of the past two years is that, when the Conservative party feels wounded and insulted by the Lib Dems, it retaliates by demanding that Cameron ignore Clegg and crush his policy ambitions. The Prime Minister always acquiesces.

So the risk is that gleeful – and from the Tory point of view, gratuitous – punching of a bruised brand accelerates a process that ends up with the Lib Dems getting less out of coalition and looking more like helpless passengers. It is one thing for voters to know that Nick Clegg feels bad about handling one policy wrong. But if the two things they know are that he is sorry and that he doesn’t get his way, what cuts through is the sense that the Lib Dems are apologising for the basic fact of having propped up a Conservative government but not sorry enough to do anything about it.

Vince Cable joked that he was a "mere pleb" in his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.