Monday, May 13, 2013

Nick Cohen explains how Britain's Liberal Democrats sold their birthright and didn't even get a mess of pottage for it

(From Business Insider, April 2012. This graph updated an October 2011 US/UK comparison, here, which already showed the US economic recovery pulling ahead significantly, despite unremitting Republican sabotage and obstructionism. The contrasts are even stronger now ... as shown by the graph at the end of this post.)

The British national election of 2010 produced a complicated overall result.  The Conservatives got more seats in Parliament than any other party, but neither of the the two major parties, Labour or Conservative, had an outright parliamentary majority.  The Liberal Democrats, the perennial third party in British national politics, held the balance of power.  Many people saw them as a fresh alternative to the Labour/Conservative duopoly, and they benefited from the fact that many voters who thought of themselves as "progressive" could not forgive Labour for the 2003 Iraq war, which the Liberal Democrats had strongly opposed.

Having been offered coalition deals by both of the major parties, the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservatives, with LibDem leader Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister. That coalition government has followed a sharply contractionary and socially painful economic policy of fiscal "austerity" with disastrous results. The Liberal Democrats have not achieved any of the key goals on which they campaigned in 2010, including a hoped-for reform of the electoral system that is currently stacked against third parties.  Support for the party expressed in opinion polls, which briefly peaked at an intoxicating 30% in April 2010, has been sinking like a stone and, according to some polls, is headed for single digits.

So what were they thinking, and how did they screw up so badly?  The democratic-left political journalist Nick Cohen lays out his version of the post-mortem in his review of a book by Andrew Adonis, 5 Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond.  Adonis's role as part of the Labour Party team negotiating with the Lib Dems back in 2010 means that he is not exactly a disinterested observer. But his account and analysis, as relayed and endorsed by Nick Cohen, sound generally plausible to me.

Some highlights:
Cool anger drives Andrew Adonis's first-hand account of how Labour tried to stop the Liberal Democrats handing Britain over to a reactionary and incompetent Conservative administration. As a Blairite education and transport minister and a former member of the Social Democratic party, Adonis had spent his adult life believing a "progressive coalition" could unite the centre and left of British politics.

His five days in May 2010 negotiating on Labour's behalf disabused him of that notion and much else besides. "Clegg wouldn't put the Tories in power, throwing over a British Liberal tradition going back a century and a half as a progressive anti-Tory party," he thought as the electorate returned a hung parliament. When they heard that David Cameron was making Clegg a generous offer, Gordon Brown and much of the cabinet thought the "process would turn to our favour once the Tories and Lib Dems had rehearsed the extent of their differences".

They were not the only ones who believed the Liberals were a leftwing party. I lost count of and patience with the Billy Bragg types of the past decade, who announced that they were voting Liberal Democrat, and then stood back as if expecting a round of applause. Apparently, to be a truly right-thinking leftwinger, you had to rally behind Nick Clegg, a public-school former Eurocrat, whose ideologues had denounced "soggy socialism and corporatism" in the Lib Dems' Orange Book manifesto.

Adonis goes to some effort to explain that the votes were there if Clegg had been interested in stopping Cameron. The Conservatives had 306 seats, but needed 326 for an overall majority. The Lab–Lib total was 315. The five SDLP, Alliance and independent members from Northern Ireland were left-leaning, as was the one English Green. The Scottish and Welsh nationalists could not side with the Tories because their electorates would have "killed" them, as Gordon Brown explained. [....]  Brown was ready to step down, once the new "progressive" coalition was running, and had given public and private assurances to this effect. His vanity would not get in the way of making it work.

Tony Blair and others warned that if no one had won the 2010 election, Labour had lost it and should accept defeat.  [....]  Nevertheless, if the Liberal Democrats' prime concern had been keeping the Conservatives out, a deal could have been made.

[....]  The Liberals' attempts to form a progressive coalition were a pretence. The party wanted to fob off its leftish activists by telling them that Labour's behaviour had made a deal impossible, and to use sham talks to extract more concessions from the Conservatives.
But this is really the most serious charge:
Adonis's most extraordinary revelation – although less extraordinary in retrospect – was that David Laws told Labour that the Lib Dems agreed with Osborne on austerity. Laws, a former banker, who was later caught robbing the taxpayer as an MP, did not try to moderate Conservative demands in the coalition negotiations. He and Clegg agreed wholeheartedly with them. As Adonis says, the Liberal Democrats did not form an alliance with the Conservatives despite Osborne but because of Osborne. (Adonis is not making a propaganda point, incidentally. Laws's own account of the negotiations bears him out.)

I suppose it is naive of me to add that Liberal Democrats had campaigned against austerity in the election campaign – Clegg warned of riots on the streets. But their promises on the economy, like their promises on tuition fees, were simply for show, and the reader is left wondering if Nick Clegg has ever made a promise he intended to keep.

Adonis wrote 5 Days in May just after the Cameron–Clegg coalition took office in 2010. He put it in a bottom drawer when he took a job with a non-partisan thinktank, and left it there until he returned to working full-time for Labour. Publishing three years on makes this a far more devastating work. For what have the Liberal Democrats achieved? Their belief in austerity has condemned Britain to years of stagnation. They have failed to achieve any significant constitutional reform. They have not stopped Cameron promising an "in-out" referendum on Europe, while in health, education, welfare and home affairs, Conservative politicians and conservative priorities have dominated.

Adonis, the Whitehall insider, says that Clegg bungled the coalition negotiations as he bungled so much else. He did not understand how power in Britain works.  [....]

The behaviour of Liberals in power shows that the only vehicle for progressive politics is the Labour party. It's not much of a vehicle. Its engine is usually choking, its exhaust is usually spewing, its passengers are usually stabbing one another in the back, and its driver is usually heading at full speed in the wrong direction. But as Adonis concludes at the end of this revelatory and quietly shocking book, it's all there is.
=>  UPDATE (5/14/2013):  Brad DeLong provides an even more illuminating graph than the one I used above, and a snappier title:  Nick Clegg Is a Wizard! He Makes Economic Recovery Disappear!

—Jeff Weintraub