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

VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

A tale of two electorates: will rural France vote for Emmanuel Macron?

His chief rival, Marine Le Pen, was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics.

It was a wet night in Paris, but hundreds of people were queuing outside the Antoine Theatre. It was standing room only to see Emmanuel Macron tonight, as it has been for weeks.

The 39-year-old former investment banker gave his usual energetic performance, delivering a well-practised pitch for a progressive, business-friendly and unabashedly pro-European France. His reward: a standing ovation and chants of Macron, président!

This theatre appearance on 8 March was an appropriate stop for a campaign that has been packed with more political drama than a series of House of Cards. Ahead of the first round of voting in the French presidential election on 23 April, the centrist independent has gone from underdog to the man most likely to beat the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. His other main rival, François Fillon of the right-wing Republicans, has been hampered by allegations that he paid his wife and children as parliamentary assistants, despite scant evidence of them doing any work.

Macron, meanwhile, has been attracting support from disenchanted voters on both left and right.

“It’s a new party, a new movement, a new face,” said Claire Ravillo-Albert, a 26-year-old human resources student and ex-Socialist in the queue outside the theatre. “We’re worlds away from the old Socialists and the Republicans here.”

Macron is not a typical outsider, having made millions in banking before serving as an advisor to François Hollande and as economy minister from 2014 to 2016. Nor can his ideas be described as radical. He is “of the left”, he says, but “willing to work with the right”.

For many he seems to embody an enticing alternative to the tired political class. Macron has never run for office before and if successful, would be the youngest president of the modern French republic. Many recruits to his one-year-old party En Marche! are young and relatively new to politics.

“I think he’ll change the French political landscape, and we need that,” said Olivier Assouline, a bank worker in an immaculate grey suit. “He knows business, he knows the state. I think he’s the right person at the right moment,” said the 44-year-old, who previously voted for right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy.

Many queuing for the rally were underwhelmed by Socialist achievements over the past five years – not least the dismal state of the economy – and had little enthusiasm for Fillon, a social conservative and economic Thatcherite.

Macron’s manifesto sticks firmly to the centre-ground. He has promised tax cuts for companies and millions of poor and middle-class families, as well as a few offbeat ideas like a one-off 500-euro grant for each 18-year-old to spend on books and cultural activities.

“With his central positioning, Macron is taking from everywhere – he has the capacity to seduce everyone,” says Frédéric Dabi, deputy director at the polling company IFOP. They estimate that Macron will take half the votes that went to Hollande when he won the last presidential election in 2012, and 17 per cent of those that went to runner-up Sarkozy.

Outside the theatre, the line was split between voters from the left and the right. But there was one word on almost everyone’s lips: Europe. At a time of continental soul-searching, Macron’s converts have chosen a candidate who backs the European Union as a guarantor of peace and celebrates free movement.

“He’s unusual in that he puts that centre-stage,” said Emma, a 27-year-old legal worker who preferred to be identified by her first name only. “Macron offers a good compromise on economic issues. But for me it’s also about Europe, because I think that’s our future.”

With Fillon and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon both languishing behind in the polls, the second round of the presidential vote, on 7 May, is likely to be a contest between Macron and Le Pen. These are both candidates who claim to have moved beyond left-right politics, and who are both offering opposing visions of France.

This is also a tale of two electorates. Le Pen was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics, traipsing around deindustrialised towns appealing to those who felt left behind by globalisation.

In the queue to see Macron were lawyers, PR consultants, graphic designers; students, gay couples and middle-class Parisians of multiple ethnicities. These are the representatives of a cosmopolitan, successful France. It was hard not to be reminded of the “metropolitan elite” who voted against Brexit.

Macron has called for investment in poorer communities, and his campaign staff pointedly invited onstage a struggling single mother as a warm-up act that night.

Yet his Socialist rival, Benoit Hamon, accuses him of representing only those who are doing pretty well already. It is hard for some to disassociate Macron from his education at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration – university of choice for the political elite – and his career at Rothschild. One infamous incident from early in the campaign sticks in the memory, when he told a pair of workers on strike: “You don’t scare me with your t-shirts. The best way to pay for a suit is to work.” For Macron, work has usually involved wearing a tie.

IFOP figures show him beating Le Pen soundly in when it comes to the voting intentions of executives and managers – 37 per cent to her 18 per cent. But when it comes to manual workers, she takes a hefty 44 per cent to his 17. He would take Paris; she fares better in rural areas and among the unemployed.

If Frédéric Dabi is to be believed, Macron’s bid for the centre-ground could pay off handsomely. But not everyone is convinced.

“He’s the perfect representative of the electorate in the big globalised cities,” the geographer Christophe Guilluy told Le Point magazine in January.

“But it’s the peripheries of France that will decide this presidential election.”