Sunday, 1 April 2012

Lib Dems: Playing politics wrong


Politics is a funny old game, it's unfortunate that it's a game that the Lib Dems seem to keep forgetting the rules of. What's worrying still is that they seem to be getting worse at playing it. No-one expected them to be amazing at playing with power, having not been in power for so long. Indeed it's an argument that no-one in the party really knows what it means to be in power, from the politicians to their long serving staff.

They did everything right* during the election. They struck out in a direction that felt unique, new, in tune with the people. They had an electable face running rings around the stuffy looking pair of old-hats, and life was sweet.

Then they got power.

They used that power well to begin with, they put immediate moves to reverse the detention of children that are trying to claim asylum in this country, separated from their parents in the cruelest manner. They wrote up the freedom bill, to regain us our civil liberties, they started the pupil premium legislation, to make money follow the poorest to provide the best benefit. It looked so rosy.

Then tuition fees happened. In essence they were out-maneuvered by the media and student politicians that were quick to judge and unwilling to listen. An involvement in policy that both the main two parties had already committed to by all but signing the dotted line, making university cheaper (free, mostly) for the poorest graduates, somehow became something it wasn't....raising the debt of poor students.

A positive, progressive move was labelled as regressive, and they could not explain why people were wrong. Condescending people by saying "you just don't understand", by the way, is not explaining anything other than that you can't be bothered to make the effort. But then those they would be explaining to didn't exactly support the party as they claimed they would at the election, maybe that can excuse to some degree an unwillingness to engage, even if it is self-defeating in the long run.

The end result was the Labour party somehow being able to regain, after having started the process of making it harder for poor people to afford Higher Education, part of student trust by actually claiming a more regressive version of the exact same legislation that would see the richer graduates paying LESS in to the system. Disaster!

Next a campaign for the Alternative vote...cursed by the party's ignorance over how tution fee legislation would be perceived. Timid and with their tail between their legs not only had they lost the ability to be confident in their ability to explain themselves, they lost the courage of their convictions. Perhaps not wanting to piss off their Tory counter-parts, they got out played. While the leadership and party-proper spent most of the time keeping their nose out of the AV campaign, Tories, including those that would sell lobbying access to Cameron on the sly, would bankroll and push one of the most dishonest campaigns in history.

History, of course, that will not remember at all the protestations after the fact that "it wasn't fair" for the Tories to act as Tories have always acted. Disenfranchising some of their core vote first, now their lack of passion for getting stuck in and making an honest case for a better voting system has crippled their chances of retaining future power. Perhaps this explains what happens from this point on.

Welfare reform. The Tories flagship core-vote winning policy area. Cut the benefits of the scrounging poor, destroy the home-lives of single parents, stop rich people paying so much to those that could have more use out of the same amount of money. There is no doubt that the Lib Dems have had some impact on the bill, Tim Farron's explainations of his support suggest as much as this...but what impact is it? Does anyone really know?

No, what they do know is that the Lib Dems overturned the legitimate concerns of the Lords, alongside the Tories, and spoke out that this was a good bill, one worth supporting. No word of why we should support what seems to be less money for the disabled, and retrospective penalisation of families that happen to be in bigger homes than they need. No, just that this bill is good, those superb communication skills coming to the fore once more.

Of course political reality is that if the option is between a Lib Dem amended bill, and a non-amended bill on welfare reform...of course the former is "good". But even that, in itself, is not properly made understood.

Then the NHS. The Lib Dems now don't even bother to read what is put in front of them as a parliamentary party. A bill rife with pushing the NHS to be carved up and shared by those who would bid the lowest, the mantra of the Labour party that had gone before them, was moments away from being allowed through by a not only cowardly and no longer confident Lib Dem party, but also a seemingly, legislatively, incompetent one.

What happened next was a triumph for having layers of democracy, as the structure of the Lib Dem party did more for changing the bill, to something that is (by my subjective reckoning) 80% removed of the dangers that were once there, than any number of hours of the opposition screaming at them to "drop the bill" with many a hypocritical half-truth and misleading remark.

Yet the lack of courage in their conviction struck again. Not only are the Lib Dems now the party who have screwed the students (even though they have secured better terms for them than either other party seemed willing to give alone), they are now the party that has privatised and killed the NHS (Even though they have fundementally changed the law to keep responsibility with the state, and put patient quality of care ahead of cost and profit). Not one senior member of the party from the government team has stood up and explained how this works.

Once again, a party making an impact on lessening the negatives, significantly, of the inevitable legislative assault of the Tories, can do nothing but pretend that they are not doing that, allowing the minds of the public to be filled over and over with the Labour message that has been on repeat since 2010...this party is just here to support the Tories, not...as is mostly happening...to keep them in check.

All of the above I can myself stomach...because while I believe the Lib Dems are making it harder and harder for themselves in this game, less likely to be re-elected with the same vote share, seats, or vote numbers...I also know that they are doing immense good by being in the coalition. However I only know about this because I take time to give a shit and understand what is going on, and to accept the limitations of how the game must be played.

But today, assuming it is not a cruel and well orchestrated April Fools hoax, the Lib Dems have finally done something that convinces me that they have forgotten to play the game at all, and if they are not willing to play the game then they are also useless to me as a party that will help to achieve the things in this country I want achieved.

It is hardly a secret that every day/week/month some half-ministerial hack that relies all too heavily on the monotonous wisdom of the public servants that man the policy offices, regardless of which party is in power, will announce something that has been decided by those who have no interest in actually representing us, only getting their will in to law. This time it is that the police *need* to be able to monitor all our emails, phone calls, letters, etc. If we do not, the terrorists will get us.

If the Lib Dems do not exist to stop exactly this kind of fishing, nudging, easing of such illiberal bullshit in our society, then what do they exist for? Tuition fees, meh, I want what they said they would strive for in their manifesto...but it is only in the top 5 of things I want Lib Dems to achieve. Right at the top, more than anything, I want the LIBERAL democrats to protect our liberties. If they have to do that by infringing on our liberties I expect them, in the tradition of their open democracy, to EXPLAIN why they have to do that, for it to be evidence based.

We will not know, probably for 12 months, whether the Lib Dem leadership have even bothered to vet this policy idea before it was released to the media as an upcoming thing. I want, dearly, to believe it is just the Tories playing strategic games that say "We're not done yet, don't think that there aren't things we can punish you with if you stop supporting us".

The trouble is for the Lib Dems that if they do let this legislation happen, even with all the best intentions in the world, they will not survive it. People like me stick with the Lib Dems as supporters because no other party has the ability to keep our liberties intact. If they fail to do this, if all we get are half-baked "freedom bills" that don't address all of the illiberal measures that Labour have foisted on us over the last 12 years of power, there is zero reason for those like me to keep voting for them.

Right now the Lib Dems are turning up to the pitch with the wrong boots and mismatching kit, and coming up on the halfway point in this government they will surely need to ask themselves, who is going to keep supporting a team as disorganised and unfocused as us, who will not only concede own goals but celebrate them as if it's a way to save face?

Time will tell whether the Lib Dems get themselves a new coach, one who understands the ropes and can whip them in to shape. For me, it can't happen soon enough. Our future, and our liberties, depends on it.

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*This kind of assumed they wouldn't get in to bed with the Tories, of course, otherwise you have to ignore the "signing a pledge to promise something absolutely", which is always the wrong thing to do as it will come back to bite you.