Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Austerity Coupling: factions and frictions

I have been quiet for some time, reflecting (for this is my personality trait) on the proposed referendum on a change to our antiquated 'first-past-the-post' (FPTP) voting system. The AV referendum is hardly ideal, and does not offer a truly proportionately representative alternative. It is simply a step along the way - and arguably the best deal that could be extracted by the LibDem leadership after the election,  a deal with the Labour Party never having been a serious proposition.

But now that the LibDems are in the position they are, many other equally pressing matters of State are calling for attention: the economy, the NHS, Education, Defence etc etc. As junior partners in this  "Austerity Coupling", the LibDem leadership has had to adapt to pragmatic politics, tempering excesses where possible. If the right wing of today's Conservative Party were to have its way, the British people would undoubtedly suffer even more.

Facing all kinds of navigational hazard, splintering apart as a party is not an attractive option. Instead, uniting with passion, purpose and determination is the LibDems' best bet. Of course many grassroots members - as well as first-time LibDem voters - may be anxious about what's being delivered, but there is little evidence to suggest mass (or even individual defections a la Labour's mischief-making over Charles Kennedy).

And the role of the LibDem leadership must remain getting our agenda onn the political agenda, influencing, implementing or changing as necessary . So where are we now?

Human Rights
Another clear example of how important it is for LibDems to influence the coalition. Our own record is strong and our human rights policies would certainly create a more equal balance - both internationally and at home.
Civil Liberties
Fantastic - the dumping of the compulsory ID card scheme, and a reduction in excessive and intrusive surveillance. Happily, this is something we have in common with the Tories. However, a reduction in the interventions of the State will not alone guarantee our freedoms.
The Economy
Yes, the austerity measures are painful but necessary if we are not to saddle our successors and children with huge burdens of debt. Someone has to pay back for past over-spending that we now cannot afford (Remember to factor in the lives lost and cost of the wars the taxpayer is required to finance). The looming pensions crisis affects all those who follow, and already many older people are affected. But a link between earnings and the state pension as been restored. And another good LIbDem policy has been the promise and delivery of the £10,000 earnings tax threshold. Plus Vince Cable MP is looking at reform of the banking sector.
The Pupil Premium is being introduced, to assist disadvantaged children. That is a good achievement, but, as the old cliche goes, "there's still room for improvement".  And I fear that Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education, is not the most sympathetic partner. I am also terribly concerned about the existence, influence and state funding of faith schools, now representing one in the three of the schools educating our primary age children.
Does it matter that the LibDems are unpopular?
I feel that Liberal Democrats are failing to get across many positive and welcome policies that contribute to the LIbDem agenda. Nick Clegg is tarnished and branded as a stooge and foil for the Tories. Sadly, we lost the talented and intelligent David Laws MP. Our Defence policies and unlikely to yield much influence with the Conservative Party (Abolish Trident? I don't think so!)

Yes, unpopular decisions have had to be taken. Ultimately, Liberal Democrats will be judged at election time by the electors (whenever within the next five years that proves to be). A recent LibDem survey asked its  Members' views on whether or not the Party should seek to reach an understanding on contesting seats at the next election. I have always believed that we should offer the electorate a proper choice and that we should contest seats on our party's policies.

Under our existing FPTP system, Liberal Democrats are naturally disadvantaged, and so actually is the electorate. One vote does not equal fair representation. Those who can be bothered to vote should understand what's at stake. There is considerable hostility to overcome (the media, political opponents, some voters). The case for AV will need to be clear and voters treated respectfully and intelligently.

Musician and political activist, Brian Eno, says he was motivated to join the LibDems because "they had the courage to take 'unpopular decisions' - out of principle rather than from electoral calculation. He goes on to highlight that under the last Labour government, the electorate was "governed by a party which received just 22 per cent of the eligible vote, but took 55 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons".

I have been re-reading a little book entitled: Why Vote LibDem, (written before the coalition was formed). Particularly interesting is Danny Alexander's preface. We may have moved outside the old red-blue, blue-red system to a new blue-orangey/yellow-kind-of-colour. The point, however, is does the party's position live up to its policy and commitments?  The Jury's  out although there's time in hand before judgement is delivered. One thing is certain; we have to work hard to make sure that there is a proper reform of our voting system and if that means taking an AV step forward, we will have to content ourselves with that - for the time being and Keep demonstrating!