In defence of the Lib Dems

What's the point of the Lib Dems? Here's what.

Mehdi Hasan asks "what's the point of the Lib Dems?" Citing five issues on which, in his opinion, the party has "sacrificed their distinctive beliefs and principles and received little in return," Hasan claims we're irrelevant. So what is the point of the Lib Dems then? To find out, he should:

1) Ask the nearly 1 million low-paid workers who have been lifted out of paying income tax altogether thanks to a Lib Dem manifesto commitment delivered in government. With the prospect of further significant reforms to come to make our tax system fairer and more progressive, this policy makes people hundreds of pounds better off in difficult times. Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government cutting inheritance tax and the 50p rate for its rich pals whilst doing nothing for the low-paid. Not with Lib Dems in government.

2) Ask the millions of children, parents and teachers who are benefiting from the pupil premium & expanded childcare provision as part of the government's investment in crucial early-years facilities. Another Lib Dem manifesto commitment, delivered in government, making a real difference to the worst off and those in need of support.

3) Ask patients and doctors who've seen NHS principles protected from worst of Andrew Lansley's reforms. Of course the Health and Social Care Bill isn't yet perfect, but it's a significant improvement on the purely market-oriented reforms originally set out - largely thanks to Lib Dem conference in securing vital safeguards for accountability, integration and public health. Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government turning the NHS into nothing but an unaccountable purchaser in a for-profit market. Not with Lib Dems in government.

4) Ask those who want safer banks and tough action on high pay - would either happen without Vince Cable pressing for the implementation of the Vickers reforms and the recommendations of the High Pay Commission? Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government caving in to the influence of its City donors, evading the measures needed to make banking safer and tackle income inequality through transparency, accountability and stakeholder empowerment. Not with Lib Dems in government.

5) Ask the nearly 600 Labour and Conservative - or should I say, Labservative - MPs who for decades have happily aligned against Lib Dems on all five of Hasan's core issues, even if it means acting against national interest like on Europe and Iraq. Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government, or Labour-only for that matter, either of whom would have removed the cap on tuition fees instead of introducing what is effectively a capped graduate tax; no attempt to reform our electoral politics as they oppose changes to the voting system, to the Lords and to party funding; likely withdrawal from the EU as either party caved in to its atavistic Eurosceptic wing; and of course the disastrous war in Iraq which both Labour and Tories enthusiastically supported against the wishes of the Lib Dems and the country as a whole.

Yes of course we want to see Liberal Democrats deliver more of our values and policies in government and to stop more Tory madness like that seen over Europe recently - that's precisely what the party's mainstream has been calling for through the Social Liberal Forum.

Prateek Buch is a Lib Dem activist and blogger

Prateek Buch is director of the Social Liberal Forum and serves on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war