On his commute into Parliament the other day, a Liberal Democrat MP found himself sitting opposite a couple of older passengers who, it turned out, were the 7.27am Southeastern Railway’s version of Statler and Waldorf.
The MP (who was relieved to be unrecognised by his fellow commuters) listened as these two seasoned observers took apart the Lib Dems. One of the men said: “They’re always in trouble, aren’t they?” “Yeah, there was that bloke with the dog,” the other chipped in. “Who was that one who, you know …” said the first, tipping his hand to his mouth as if taking a drink – “… Kennedy? Yeah that’s right.” “Then the one who went to prison for speeding.” And so the conversation went, all the way into central London, with a roll call of Lib Dems and their misdemeanours. The MP could only shrink into his seat in embarrassment and despair.
This will not be the first – or last – time I write the words “it has been a difficult couple of weeks for the Lib Dems”. The twin controversies of Lord Rennard (above right) and Mike Hancock rumble on. Who would be a Lib Dem today? They have been described as the “worst party in the world”, hamstrung by their own internal democracy, their leader “impotent”, their handling of the scandals “farcical” and the butt of jokes on Twitter, the best of which was this from political blogger Adam Lake: “Could the last Lib Dem to be suspended please turn the lights back on so we can see where you’re putting your hands.”
It would be all too easy to deride Nick Clegg’s party. So I won’t. Instead, put aside for a moment all the – serious – shenanigans and lurid allegations, and I am going to tell you How We Can All Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Lib Dems.
1 It is an open, democratic party. Yes, doing everything by committee and not allowing the leader much power over internal discipline has been a disaster. But it is a thing to celebrate that, generally, members and activists have a say in how their party is run – they are a true grassroots movement. The Lib Dems have also followed due process – this is important.
2 They are not in hock to all-powerful union leaders or wealthy donors who want to buy influence. OK, so the downside of this is they don’t have much money, and their biggest donor, Michael Brown, turned out to be a wrong ’un – but that was years ago. Today, the Lib Dems can operate without fear or favour. Isn’t that refreshing, and an example of the “new politics” that was promised after the expenses scandal?
3 They can be proud of their record in government. Clegg and his ministers can claim credit for the following: the pupil premium, where £2.5bn has gone to fund schools with poorer children, a big Lib Dem demand; free school meals for all infant pupils from next September; cutting taxes for all earners by raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 was a Lib Dem policy; and maintaining policies on tackling climate change.
4 They have acted as a check to Conservative excesses. The Lib Dems in coalition have blocked the following: plans to allow employers to fire at will; permitting schools to be run for profit; a £270,000 inheritance tax cut for the richest householders; an expensive replacement for Trident; a two-tier exam system and old-style O-levels; relaxed quotas for childcare; the “snoopers’ charter”; and plans to axe the Human Rights Act.
5 It is a party of renewal. Yes, the Lib Dems spent too long dealing with allegations about Rennard and Hancock, were far too secretive about Charles Kennedy’s drinking, and have a dreadful record on getting women into Parliament. This might be because of size – in a larger party the problematic individuals would be less prominent, and there would be more women. But it can renew and refresh quickly – Clegg became an MP only in 2005, and was leader two years later. And it has a record of dispensing with leaders – and troublesome MPs – mercilessly and quickly.
6 Because the party is small, it is pragmatic. Opponents may see this as opportunism, pretending to be one thing in Constituency A and another in Constituency B. Clegg was accused of hypocrisy over tuition fees. But he did apologise. And one person’s opportunism is another’s moderation – a balance against the polarised positions of the Conservatives and Labour. In a era of coalition government, this ability to negotiate and compromise is a good thing.
This is not to belittle or diminish the significance of Rennard and Hancock. But a political party should not be written off because of a handful of controversial individuals. That Lib Dem MP on the 7.27am train has plenty of good things to say.
An end to benefits for the rich
The BBC is being told to fund the soaring cost of free licence fees for over-75s because, while it’s marvellous that we’re all living longer, the Government cannot cope with the £600m cost. We keep hearing that political parties are threatening to axe pensioner benefits for richer households, but it never quite happens – because older people are more likely to vote. As difficult as means-testing is, I think if welfare cuts are happening to those in work, it is time for the richest to give up their winter fuel allowance, free bus passes and TV licences.
No more ‘Mrs Clegg’, please
I can’t wait for there to be a female leader of a political party so we can write endlessly about what her husband, or partner, is wearing, or how he’s trying to influence his other half behind the scenes.
Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, the Deputy Prime Minister’s wife, showed her frustration when it was reported that it was she who was forcing her husband to get tough over Rennard. What must really get her goat, though, is that hardly anyone can get her name right. Even though she styles herself as Ms Gonzalez Durantez, she’s been described as “Mrs Clegg”, which she is not, or, perhaps worse, “Mrs Gonzalez”, as if she is a bigamist and there is a brooding husband named Mr Gonzalez living in a Madrid suburb, grumbling into his San Miguel about Clegg’s treachery on tuition fees. It can’t be that difficult, can it?
Signs of the crimes
Speaking of which – and I don’t want to sound as though I spend every waking hour tutting at things that are wrong – but I was taken aback at something I saw at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley last week. I love the RHS, I really do, but a sign outside its glasshouse read: “Please follow the directional signage”. This is as bad as train announcements that say “Our next station stop ...”