NHS reforms offer still more pain, even less gain for the Lib Dems

Clegg should have learnt from tuition fees that complex arguments can't sell hated reforms and that

Nick Clegg will urge the Liberal Democrats to "tear off the rear view mirror" in a rally to open the party's spring conference in Gateshead this evening. It is a curious metaphor that is meant to signal optimism and determination - looking only at the governing road ahead, not nervously behind at the hard path already travelled. It could also be interpreted as denial.

The message will be reinforced by party chair Tim Farron, whose speech is previewed in a Guardian op-ed this morning. He invites Lib Dems - instructs them even - to stop feeling guilty about the compromises that have been made for the sake of coalition. Farron describes power as "an occupational hazard" for serious political parties and one from which the Lib Dems ought not shy away.

This coordinated message is meant to signal the fact that, as one strategist put it to me recently, "the party is coming out of its defensive crouch." There is cautious confidence that this May's local elections will not be a repeat of last year's massacre. Campaign resources are being more strategically focused; recent council by-election wins give grounds for optimism.

Meanwhile, Lib Dem MPs, most activists and Clegg himself are all fed up with the expectation that they ought to be apologising for the very fact of being in a coalition when, from their point of view, that is an epic achievement. What, after all, would have been the point of all those years in opposition if the chance to enact party policy had been turned down? The challenge, according to this analysis, is to explain to a sceptical and inattentive public quite how much Lib Dem policy is actually being introduced and what a triumph this is, making the country fairer; or fairer, at least, than it would have been had the Tories been able to rule unrestrained.

And there lies the biggest problem. Partly by necessity, partly through ill-judgement, the Lib Dems have ended up winning many little things, while the Conservatives have won very big things. The two defining issues of this parliament could well end up being George Osborne's economic choice to press ahead with austerity at an accelerated pace and David Cameron's decision to forge ahead with unpopular and poorly understood NHS reforms. Labour are convinced the public will turn against both. (The evidence only supports that assertion with regard to the health service.) Either way, the Lib Dem role is cast firmly as accomplice, which is the classic trap for junior coalition partners - maximum pain if it goes wrong; minimum credit if it works. The "pupil premium" and tweaks to the House of Lords won't alter that equation much.

Lib Dems gathering in Gateshead today know that much, which is why they are agitated about the Health and Social Care Bill. This time last year, a rebellious mood at the party's spring conference helped spur Clegg into demanding a "pause" in the legislative process to reconsider the whole thing. There is a growing sense in the party that the reforms have not changed enough (or are not judged to be anything other than trouble by the public) to justify endorsement. Would not the Lib Dems be able to signal their true worth in government by vetoing the measure altogether? Might they not then be able to campaign on a claim to have saved the NHS? To that end there is a motion in the works - yet to be scheduled for debate - calling for the health reforms to be scrapped.

Senior Lib Dems (and a large number of Tories, including some close to Downing Street) wish Clegg had killed the bill last year. Instead, the reforms have been mangled enough by constant amendment to persuade the public that the whole thing is a shambles, but not enough to convince anyone that the underlying intent has been changed. This is, without doubt, a disaster for the government.

David Cameron hopes that, once the furore around the actual legislation is out of the way, a process of explanation, education and reassurance can reconcile people to the changes. The one person in politics best equipped to know how wrong that assumption is should be Nick Clegg. It is exactly the technique he tried after his party's u-turn on tuition fees. (One reason to hold on to that rear view mirror for a while, perhaps.) He explained over and over again how the new system was, in fact, fairer than the old one, how it was the best option available, how the underlying principle that had led him to make his anti-fees pledge in opposition was kind of honoured by measures being taken to mitigate ... blah, blah. No matter.

A visceral sense of betrayal created an emotional barrier that no rational argument could penetrate. There is a danger of the same happening with the NHS. Once people decide that Cameron and co. have reneged on a fundamental pledge to protect the health service, they aren't going to be swayed by a claim that cuts and chaos are a different kind of protection - special long-term protection that requires pain in the short-term. Anger is rarely appeased with a graph. And, of course, when that happens, Clegg's amendments, adjustments and moderations will be worth nothing. No one thanks the midwife at the birth of a monster.

This problem expresses a wider strategic challenge for the Lib Dems - and for Clegg in particular. The party is having to work out how to make coalition government work and educate voters about what that means at the same time. It also has the misfortune to be allied with the Tories, who aggravate a unique kind of hostility among a section of the population whose votes Clegg needs. That distaste is deep-rooted and cultural; it transcends day-to-day politics. This tribal barrier is not unique to British politics, but it is especially pronounced by European standards. Clegg's sense of how coalition ought to be part of the Westminster repertoire is derived, in part, from his experience of the continent.

He is taking the Lib Dems on a transition from being one kind of party to something completely different. He took over something distinctly British, mildly eccentric, contrarian, and comfortable in opposition and is turning it into a technocratic, professional party of coalition. It is like remodelling the Campaign for Real Ale as McKinsey. Tricky.

The most compelling argument for what Clegg is trying to do (leaving aside how effectively he is managing it) is that there is no alternative. A party that refuses the opportunity to govern forfeits the right to be taken seriously. But given the Lib Dems' poll ratings, the grass roots could be forgiven for wondering how much more pain they have to endure before the political dividends of the transformation are felt. On this journey it isn't the rear view mirror Clegg has to worry about, it's everyone in the back chanting "are we nearly there yet?"

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

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The barbecue that shows that Jeremy Corbyn is inevitable

Labour's been a long time dying, says Neal Lawson.

Just sometimes you spot something small and throw away which crystalizes something much bigger and really profound.  It happened recently about the future of the Labour Party, tucked away in the letters page of the Guardian. Steven Pound the MP for Ealing North shared his concerns about the influx of new, presumably Corbyn voting, members. 

The worry was this – only two of the 43 invited new members could be bothered to turn up for a barbecue and social. There it was, in a tiny chicken nugget, all you needed to know about why the Labour Party is a vehicle out of time and place and so ripe for the Corbyn Surge.

Let’s unpick the BBQ, the new members and their seeming reluctance to show up. The first thing that’s screams at anyone vaguely normal is why on earth would you want to go to a BBQ being organized by the Labour Party – when presumably you could go to a real one, with real friends.  There is a give away – it’s a “barbecue and social” – ie a barbecue where you have to be social – where you have to told to be social as if that weren’t a given. Does the Labour Party or anyone have BBQs that are unsocial?  When you decode it, what it means is come and pretend that Labour is ‘with it’ – that being a member is a deep cultural and social experience – when everyone knows it isn’t.

The Labour Party has been a front for years – a front for a technocratic and managerial elite who like to tell everyone what’s good for them and that they must suck up almost as many right wing ideas and polices as the Tories are offering to be in office.  And the party, in desperation and with nothing else on offer, had to go along with it. 

 Of course people get bored of being used and eventually despise knowing that all the party was doing was slowing the rate at which the poor got poorer and the planet burnt – that meetings were meaningless because all the real decisions were being made elsewhere. But the elite still needed the legitimacy of plastic members and their leaflets wouldn’t deliver themselves.  So the foot soldiers had to be given something – so why not a BBQ – that will show Labour has changed – that the party has deep roots and bags of fun. But it’s a scam. A Quorn sausage when only meat will do. Because we all know that really the elite want to read out the minutes and the matters arising from the last BBQ, to be Minister for burgers and the secretary of state for baked potato’s.

But its stopped working. What the Ealing 41 refusniks tell us is that they didn’t previously join Labour because there was no point.  Modestly humanized neo-liberalism, even with a BBQ and social, is not enough. A party still rooted in the culture of the last century – the factory - with no democracy and little connection to the governing norms of the 21st century – that of Facebook – was not attractive to them.

The surge around Jeremy Corbyn changed all that – Labour became interesting for the fist time despite everything about it – its elitism, its awful compromises, its lack of hope or belief in the best in people – only the worst (I’m really resisting German sausage jokes here).

The Pound letter ends with the chilling warning that maybe all these people had joined for was to get Jeremy Corbyn elected in the hope for something better. As if that’s wasn’t good enough – surely they understand there are more BBQs to be organized?   Cant they join and pretend with us  – vote for the status quo and eat their meat?

 But this is the 21st century. People join and swarm, in a none David Cameron unpejorative way.  Bubbles and waves appear so fast.  Foot free but progressively minded, agile and connected is the way millions of people now are. 400,000 of them have joined Labour since the last election. They will swarm  elsewhere quickly if Corbyn doesn’t win or over time if he fails to understand the nature of these new times.  The party of the past is dead regardless of who becomes Labour's leader.  But these wave of hope and action mean we can still change the world – just without making a meal of it. 

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.