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.
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle