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Leader: As the Lib Dems show, the little party always gets smashed

Clegg's party has gained little beyond the privileges of power and lost much from coalition government.

Shortly before the last general election, David Cameron visited his fellow centre-right leader Angela Merkel and, in anticipation of a hung parliament, asked her what it was like to lead a coalition government. “The little party always gets smashed!” the German chancellor replied. Mrs Merkel’s words, as revealed by the former Conservative education secretary Kenneth Baker in last week’s New Statesman, have proved prescient. Like their German sister party, the Free Democrats, the Liberal Democrats have gained little beyond the privileges of power and lost much from coalition government.

Since 2010, the party’s membership has declined by a quarter and the number of Liberal Democrat councillors has fallen below 3,000, the lowest level in two decades. The Lib Dems’ current poll rating of 10 per cent would, on a uniform swing, leave them with just 18 of their present 57 seats. The party is now as unpopular in Scotland, where it has 11 MPs, as the Tories, who hold one out of the 59 Westminster seats. The decision to enter coalition with the Conservatives and the return of the Labour Party to opposition was always likely to squeeze the Lib Dems’ vote but, with a series of political blunders, their leader, Nick Clegg, has intensified the damage. The party was endorsed by the Guardian at the last election but it has since lost many of its left-leaning supporters. Its embrace of austerity economics was too ardent and many will never forgive Mr Clegg for his U-turn on university tuition fees.

Two recent events have epitomised his struggles. First, the night before it was confirmed that Britain’s economy shrank in the final quarter of 2012 (as it has done in four of the past five quarters), the Deputy Prime Minister finally conceded that the coalition cut infrastructure spending too deeply after entering office. “If I’m going to be sort of self-critical, there was this reduction in capital spending when we came into the coalition government,” he said. (That redundant “sort of” is characteristic of the imprecision of his language.) “I think we comforted ourselves at the time that it was actually no more than what Alistair Darling spelled out anyway, so in a sense everybody was predicting a significant drop-off in capital investment.”

Mr Clegg’s contention that the coalition merely chose to match the plans it had inherited from Labour is disingenuous. To date, according to figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility, the government has spent £12.8bn (8 per cent) less on capital projects than planned by Mr Darling, whose tenure as chancellor appears more impressive with each passing month of recession.

Mr Clegg’s belated self-criticism is a reminder of how careless it was for his party to embrace, so unquestioningly, the Conservatives’ economic plans during the coalition negotiations. As the Labour peer and former transport secretary Andrew Adonis reported in the NS in 2010, the Lib Dems made no attempt to stick to their campaign pledge to delay spending cuts until at least 2011. And yet Mr Clegg had declared just five days before the general election: “My eight year- old ought to be able to work this out – you shouldn’t start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing.” He went on to approve Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms, for which the government had no mandate, without, according to Shirley Williams, taking the time to read the bill.

Mr Clegg’s second act of self-correction was his decision to lead his party in voting against the Tories’ proposed boundary changes, which were deservedly defeated on 29 January by 334 votes to 292. Yet this rebellion, the first time Lib Dem ministers had voted against their Conservative counterparts since the coalition was formed, was a display of weakness, not strength. It was only after failing to come even close to winning the referendum on the Alternative Vote (the original quid pro quo for the boundary changes) and to secure reform of the House of Lords that Mr Clegg turned against the changes, for which he had previously argued. “There can be no justification for maintaining the current inequality between constituencies and voters across the country,” he told MPs in 2010. His rebellion was an act of petulance, not principle. How disappointing – and damning – that the Lib Dems, the party of constitutional reform, will leave office with Britain’s electoral system unchanged and its second chamber unelected.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.

For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.

IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.

Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.

Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.

Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.

The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.

His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.

He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.

I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.