After we hung ’em

Twelve immediate reflections on the coalition.

1. David Cameron is the adroit driver of the coalition. He proposed an offer that the weakened Lib Dems couldn't refuse. His own strategy is to replace Tory nationalism with a 21st-century version of One-Nation "Whig" Conservatism, one that can appeal to urban and suburban multicultural Britain. (See my article "The end of Thatcherism" at OurKingdom.) Don't blame Nick; Labour wasn't interested in changing.

2. Nick Clegg's speech today confirms his commitment to the "modern liberty" agenda of rolling back the intrusive, database state. It is a tremendously positive outcome of the coalition agreement and a framework of principle that helps bind it together. Tragically, Labour were positive enemies of progress in this respect and don't understand what has hit them. Just because the BBC refuses to cover an issue doesn't mean it is not important.

3. But the coalition smacks of an attempt to create a new establishment (male, public school, enlightened) to replace the turpitude of New Labour's political class. While it is wonderful on liberty, noises about appointing swarms of new lords suggest an underlying attempt to preserve the old order. The expenses scandal isn't over yet.

4. The Tory aim is to win the next election outright. The Lib Dems need a strategy that will leave them stronger not weaker when they leave the coalition. If, as he told James Macintyre, Nick Clegg wants to be prime minister, he has to be better at playing chess than David Cameron.

5. The Tories will be stupid to tell voters we can decide on our electoral system and then refuse to permit us the choice of a significantly different one. They can't "restore trust" by spending millions on a referendum designed not to trust us. The Lib Dems will be hammered, too, if they go along with this. A proportional choice should be included in the referendum. Liberty can only be safeguarded by democracy but democracy is the coalition's political fault line.

6. A new generation that grew up under the spin of New Labour, and for which the wit and facility of the web are second nature, is starting to mobilise against being fitted up by half-measures that preserve the old regime. The demand for fair votes has taken to the streets under the colour of suffrage and added a new dimension to UK politics. The purple revolution may pause for breath but it is likely to grow -- it is an irresistible claim, not a protest.

7. Britain is much better in many ways thanks to New Labour, but the new leaders will need not just to admit they were wrong on Iraq, but explain why they persisted in being wrong when so many of us, including the Lib Dems, were right. A dishonest electoral system gave them many more seats than they deserved, but this will be corrected and they have no chance of expanding the support they need until they rethink what kind of a state they offer voters, and how we can be sure it will be both politically and economically honest, as well as creating policies that don't need borrowed money. If, like the Compass "A New Hope" conference sponsored by the New Statesman, Labour ignores the implications of its database state, then its cause is already hopeless and it will lose the next election.

8. The desire to preserve the Union and prevent a boost for the SNP in Scotland was an important motive for Cameron's offer of a coalition. Otherwise, the government would have had one MP, rather than 12, from north of the border. But its effect might be to destroy the Lib Dems in the Scottish Parliament elections next year. The national question is a burning fuse that might be slowed but can't be extinguished.

9. The coalition agreement stipulates that there will be a report on what to do about the West Lothian Question, that is to say, the unfairness of the present arrangements for the English (England returned a Tory majority). The official answer to the West Lothian Question has always been not to ask it. Once England enters the mix as an acknowledged grievance, stand back!

10. The row over whether parliament can be forced to rewrite the fundamental rule that if a government loses the confidence of the House it has to resign shows that the British constitution's famed flexibility has been tested to destruction. To put it politely, the UK's uncodified constitution is broken beyond repair. The coalition won't whistle it back together again. This could provide a way for Labour to be more democratic in its strategy than the Liberal-Conservative government.

11. The "Portillo moment" of election night, signalling that something historic had happened, was Caroline Lucas's victory. The Greens have a politics of the totality, linking the economy and our environment to our democracy. If "new politics" means anything, it means green. The Greens need to grow.

12. Will the dire state of the deficit and the coming cuts be used to preserve the dominance of the City and its economic system? Or is that system so obviously dysfunctional and deep cuts so likely to provoke rioting that the Conservatives (for such they are) will seek a "fair" way out of the mess to preserve the social order? No one understands what is going to happen to capitalism on a world scale. All we know is that the UK is exceptionally exposed, not least thanks to the policies of Brown and Balls, and there is a fear that something dreadful awaits us just over the horizon.

Anthony Barnett is co-founder of openDemocracy and co-edits its British blog, OurKingdom. Read his original article for the New Statesman, "Hang 'em high with this election", here.

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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.