Clegg must give a straight answer

Hints are not enough -- the Liberal Democrats must clarify their position on a power-sharing agreeme

Quite the centre of attention yesterday, Nick Clegg moved today to make his voice heard amid the cacophony, writing an article in the Times, and declaring on Radio 4's Today programme that "I'm not a kingmaker . . . The people are the kingmakers."

Yesterday's speculation centred on what the party would do in the event of a hung parliament -- something our Leader this week calls on the Liberal Democrat leader to clarify.

But did he clarify anything at all?

Ostensibly, he remains committed to the position of "equidistance" from both parties, established before Christmas. His Times piece, along with the usual Lib Dem fodder that a vote for them is not wasted, shows a real -- and probably valid -- edgy feeling that the very public attempts by both Cameron and Brown to align themselves with the Lib Dems could remove a portion of their vote.

But what about the question on everyone's lips: Where would the Lib Dems' alliances lie if a power-sharing agreement became necessary? Despite the fighting talk that "the Liberal Democrats are not for sale", Clegg remains frustratingly reticent, writing:

We will respect the will of the public. The voters are in charge and the decision is theirs. If voters decide that no party deserves an overall majority, then self-evidently the party with the strongest mandate will have a moral right to be the first to seek to govern on its own or, if it chooses, to seek alliances with other parties.

Come on, Nick. This is spectacularly vague -- as I pointed out yesterday, it all depends on how you define the will of the public.

His second point is that, in the event of a hung parliament, the actions of the Lib Dems will be governed by their commitment to four central principles: fair taxes, a fair start for children (with smaller class sizes and a "pupil premium" favouring poorer children), a sustainable economy, and clean politics.

But hang on a minute -- aren't some of these goals completely incompatible with those of the Tories? The fair-tax proposal centres on raising the point at which people start paying income tax to £10,000, by increasing taxes on the rich. This doesn't sound like a great fit with cuts to inheritance tax that would enrich the country's wealthiest 3,000 estates.

And on cleaning up politics, Clegg says he wants to "stop tax avoiders from standing for parliament, sitting in the House of Lords or donating to political parties". I can't help but wonder whether this sounds a little pointed, given the dubious tax status of Lord Ashcroft, Conservative peer and donor extraordinaire.

As my colleague James Macintyre suggests in his fantasy politics piece in this week's magazine, Labour is the more natural ally for the Lib Dems. Clegg's comments today imply that he feels the same way -- on the Today programme, asked if this was a "centre-left agenda", he replied: "It's a fair agenda, yes." In yet another tantalising hint, he said of the Tories: "At the moment, of course, the differences are more striking than the synthetic similarities."

From a political perspective, perhaps it is astute -- necessary, even -- for Clegg to hedge his bets, refusing to publicly rule out a union with the Conservative Party now in case the Lib Dems come to regret it later. But, as he wrote today: "In the event of a hung parliament, the British people also deserve to know how the Liberal Democrats will respond."

Everything Clegg has said today implies that a Lib-Lab pact is more likely than a Conservative one. Now he must come out and say so.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496