Coalition finds Lib Dems learning to sing in an awkward new key

The post-election thank you party demonstrates that not everyone is wild about the coalition.

Forty days after shocking the nation by entering into a coalition deal with the Tories, the Lib Dems met to reminisce about the general election campaign, and thank those who campaigned so hard, only to be disappointed by a low youth voter turnout and the overall loss of five seats.

The property tycoon and long-time Lib Dem supporter Ramesh Dewan hosted the event, held in the ballroom of the Park Plaza hotel in London. Significantly, this opulent location lies just across the river from the Palace of Westminster -- a constant reminder that although their election night did go entirely to plan, they are now a party of government.

Seeing Chris Huhne, now Energy and Climate Change Secretary, come bounding out of the front door to urge his smoking friends inside, was just another indicator of the strange mood at this gathering. The atmosphere was both heady (with power, perhaps?) and uncomfortable, as the room was crammed with members who remember Paddy Ashdown's leadership and were clearly very aware of the long road the party had travelled from those days to the brave new world of the "new politics".

There were giggles at the toastmaster's address; Lib Dems are not yet used to hearing themselves addressed as "lords, ladies, gentlemen, secretaries of state and ministers". But Dewan's address was very much in line with what we've been hearing from those new ministers. He spoke of achievements and Lib Dem manifesto commitments fulfilled.

However, the party president, Ros Scott, was not quite so strictly on-message. She acknowledged that members will have some "strange" feelings about the new situation, and implied that the leadership must earn their members' trust by the way the handle power in the coalition.

Promises made good

Naturally, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was very well received by those members present. It certainly felt like he had no need to earn back their trust as he made the customary after-dinner sallies, joking that there were still hairdressers who didn't recognise him and that his ego had taken something of a battering when confronted with children supremely unimpressed by his new position. The rhetoric of the campaign did make a brief reappearance, though, as he spoke of the promises that would be made good.

But the mood in the room became palpably awkward as he moved on to the sensitive issue of staff redundancies. As a party of government, the Lib Dems no longer receive the £1.8m of public funding they received in opposition. According to staff members I spoke to, this will mean cuts, and up to 39 jobs could go. Clegg put his customary optimistic spin on the matter, speaking of "the new opportunities and adventures we will face", but, according to one staff member, the job cuts are "the elephant in the room".

It isn't just staff members who are worried about money. There is a huge hole in the party's finances that is bound to affect campaign resources, and although many of the key people are now enjoying government salaries, a lack of cash will make the next campaign much tougher. Next time, we could be losing seats simply because we can't afford to put the resources into our campaign.

It's hard to tell whether these members are genuinely pleased to be in government. While there are those who told me that they loved the idea of the coalition and had few concerns about its future, there were far many more who expressed scepticism. One member from the right of the party, who has contested several parliamentary elections, said: "I can't say that this set-up is something I've campaigned for all these years. It's not really what I wanted."

Another source close to senior party figures believed that if Charles Kennedy were still leader, the party would not have entered into the coalition, preferring the "confidence and supply" arrangement that he said would have kept the party in far better health.

This is an unprecedented situation for the party, and it is bound to feel more than a little surreal. When the after-dinner entertainment started, many present were unable to tell if the Shirley Bassey impersonator was the real thing or not -- an indication, perhaps, of the disorientating effect of the coalition. I suppose if you look around the room to see the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the former BBC director general Greg Dyke amid the throng, it isn't so unbelievable that Shirley Bassey really could have come to sing for us.

Eduardo Reyes was vice-chair of Student Liberal Democrats. He worked for the Liberal Democrats from 1995-98, is a contributor to the Reformer magazine, and has been a party election agent and council candidate.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.