The Lib Dems deserve a long spell out of harm's way. Photo: Getty
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Lib Dems are guilty of aiding and abetting the Tories; they deserve a long sentence

We can't forget how many policies the Lib Dems have happily supported that are against the grain of everything we thought they believed in.

What I heard from the recent Liberal Democrat conference has left me not just disappointed, but angry. I can see why, given their poor ratings in the polls, they are keen to trumpet what they see as the "successes" of the coalition as their doing. They plead "not guilty" to aiding and abetting the Tories. And they are desperate to dump the blame solely on the Tories for the policies with which they don't want to be associated.

But we can't forget how many of this government's policies the Lib Dems have happily supported that are so absolutely against the grain of everything I thought their party believed in. On many occasions, things could have been so different - on many of these policies we could and should have worked together, and we'd have blocked their passage or ameliorated the worst excesses.

Let's take my own area of justice. Lib Dem votes have delivered cuts to legal aid, curtailment of judicial review, extension of secret courts, probation privatisation and the introduction of employment tribunal fees - a pretty illiberal list by any stretch of the imagination. On each of these, it was left to Labour to expose the true impact of these policies, and bring forward amendments and proposals which would have tempered the worst excesses.

The problem the Liberal Democrats have got themselves into is what I'd call the "having your cake and eating it" approach to government. They've tried to make out they are both in government and not in government at the same time. The worst thing about this approach is the disrespect it shows to the public.

This is what makes me angry. Under Nick Clegg's leadership the Lib Dems treat the voters as if they are mugs. Week after week in the House of Commons I've seen one or two Lib Dem MPs speak against illiberal policies and troop through the "no" lobby with us while the other 50 odd Lib Dem MPs slavishly support the government. This is faux opposition from a party that's actually in government and it's just not good enough. At a time when the public's confidence in our elected representatives could not be lower, rather than take steps to fix this, the Lib Dems are entrenching this disillusionment further.

Unlike the Liberal Democrats, I've been very clear on a number of the policies Labour opposes. Take their reckless probation privatisation as an example, and the handing over of £6billion of taxpayers' money to the usual suspects like Capita, A4E and Sodexo. We oppose the gamble this government is taking with public safety.

What's more, this fits a pattern of more and more of our money being handed over to private companies, who are rarely held accountable for their actions as they are beyond the scope of freedom of information. Labour wouldn't do things this way - if we are in government next May we will extend the legislation so that private companies running public services are subject to the same disinfecting transparency as the public sector. I'd rather not waste words on Chris Grayling's ridiculous ban on sending books to prisoners, delivered with Lib Dem support - except to say we'd reverse it.

And Labour has also shown a distinct way forward with its strong commitment to the Human Rights Act and our membership of the European Convention on Human Rights. I've made clear our determination to drive down re-offending through reforming prisons. Work I commissioned will report shortly on ways we can diversify our judiciary, and on the country's first ever victims' law. As a possible future Justice Secretary, I give my assurances I will show much greater respect to the rule of law than the current incumbent.

We've always known the Tories were the nasty party. But I hope the public don't believe the Lib Dem rhetoric of having to make hard choices to allow our country to recover. How about asking the families attending my weekly advice surgery who have the bailiffs knocking at the door as a result of the cruel bedroom tax about hard choices? I'd love to hear Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes answer the question of where I should direct the constituents that come to see me needing legal advice but without funds to pay a lawyer, those who've been victims of sexual harassment to those whose benefit entitlement has been miscalculated as a result of ATOS. Under the last Labour government there were five Law Centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux locally I could send them to. Under this government there are none.

So no - I won't be happy with the situation I'll inherit in 2015 on access to justice, left the privilege of the rich by Lib Dem actions. But I'll turn the justice system upside down to deliver up the resources we need to repair the Lib Dems damage. The Lib Dems are guilty as charged of aiding and abetting the Tories. And they deserve a long spell out of harm's way as a punishment. It will be left to Labour will be left to pick up the pieces.

Sadiq Khan is Labour MP for Tooting and shadow justice secretary

Sadiq Khan is MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London.
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide