The real reason Clegg saved the NHS bill

If the junior coalition party had killed the bill, Cameron would have appointed a Lib Dem health sec

The Budget has blown most other political news off the agenda, so it is worth recalling that earlier in the week the cabinet was celebrating what it thought was the passing of a different headache: Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms. There was apparently a hearty banging of the cabinet table on Tuesday in celebration of the Health and Social Care Bill's gruesome completion of its parliamentary odyssey. I suspect that jubilation expressed relief rather than pleasure.

Either way, it was premature. Downing Street is hoping that the noisy fury around the NHS reforms will die down now that they aren't the subject of legislative trench warfare, but no-one is so naive as to think the issue will go away. Every increase in waiting times, every closed ward, every bungled operation will now be firmly blamed (fairly or not) on the choices made by the coalition. This is one area where "clearing up Labour's mess" really doesn't apply as a defence.

It has been something of a mystery to me as to why the Lib Dems - who have been well aware of the political toxicity of the health reforms for over a year - didn't demand that they be dropped. I know that there was some regret in Nick Clegg's team that the "pause" declared in the passage of the bill was not turned into a full stop last year. I also know that quite a few senior Tories and Downing Street aides came to the same view and rather wished the Lib Dems had killed the monster when they had the chance.

But at that time, Clegg was still very much concerned about coalition being seen to work as a form of government and was wary of obstructing such a big public sector reform. The Tories would have milked the episode for plenty of concessions of their own. Eventually, the Prime Minister decided that it was better to take the pain of trying to implement the reforms than absorb the humiliation of a gigantic u-turn (especially since an irreversible budget squeeze ensured a dose of NHS pain either way). Once Cameron had made that call, the Lib Dems fell into line.

But if they had really wanted to stop the thing, they still could have insisted. And the threat of being contaminated with Tory toxicity on the health service was substantial. So why did Clegg still press ahead? One explanation given to me recently is highly revealing about the way coalition works. There were, I am told, senior Lib Dem discussions until very late in the day about whether or not to kill the NHS bill. The key problem, it was decided - no doubt with the help of dark warnings from the prime minister - was that the quid pro quo for blocking Tory reform of the health service would be total Lib Dem ownership of the issue in the future. In other words, if Clegg wanted to block Lansley, he would have to accept having a Lib Dem secretary of state replace him in the next reshuffle and take responsibility for whatever happened next.

The message from Cameron was: you break it, you fix it. Wisely, Clegg decided that was not an opportunity he felt like taking. That explains also why there has been chatter about a Lib Dem taking the health portfolio in the near future. They weren't rumours, they were threats. I'm now fairly sure it won't happen. That doesn't mean Lansley won't be shuffled out - but he'll have to be replaced by another Tory.

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

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change