Sometimes Sitting On The Fence Is More Dangerous Than A Leap
December 18, 2014
by Martin Odoni
An occasional joke about voting for the old Liberal/SDP Alliance back in the 1980’s was that it was a vote for firm, concrete indecision. Perhaps a little unfair, but it has to be said there was an echo of truth in it. The two parties couldn’t decide whether they were right or left. They couldn’t decide whether they were the same or different. They couldn’t decide whether their leader was David Steel or David Owen. They couldn’t even decide whether they were the same party or a marriage of convenience between two parties.
After dithering over these questions for seven full years, the parties finally merged into one in 1988, whereupon they couldn’t decide what name they would have. They started out deciding to be known as ‘The Social & Liberal Democrats’, but couldn’t decide whether they liked people calling them either that or ‘The SLD’, so decided not to make a decision on that, then after a few months, they decided that they hadn’t decided that after all, and instead decided that they would be decidedly happier if they decided that they would prefer it others decided simply to call them ‘Liberal Democrats’. Or ‘LibDems’, that would be okay too, but they couldn’t really decide which of the two names they liked best.
Nick Clegg, the current, decidedly unpopular, leader of the LibDems, has turned this record of indecision into an art-form. I’m pretty sure he never decided to, but it’s what he’s done anyway. As leader of his party at the 2010 General Election, he was decidedly opposed to almost every aspect of Conservative Party policy. And in the spirit of firm indecision, he therefore decided, after the Election resulted in an indecisively Hung Parliament, to form a Coalition with the Conservative Party. Well, he eventually did, after initially being unable to decide whether he wanted to form a Coalition with Labour instead; he probably wanted to side with Labour, but couldn’t decide, so for a few days he decided not to make a decision.
Having been made Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition Cabinet, Clegg then showed all the decisiveness and consistency he was now legendary for, by supporting the Conservative policies he had spoken out so bitterly against, and helping to implement them against the students who had made up the core support that the LibDem vote had been built upon. This included deciding to help push through a rise in tuition fees that he had promised never to support. He might have apologised to his supporters for doing it, but couldn’t really decide whether that might just make them even angrier.
Clegg’s party also helped push through the notorious ‘Spare Room Subsidy’ or ‘Bedroom Tax’. This was because the LibDems realised that the Government needed more money, but they couldn’t decide whether it would be more effective and morally-better to try taking that money from people who actually possessed some, e.g. rich people, or from people who didn’t have the two proverbial ha’pennies to rub together. Being unable to decide what the correct answer would be to such a knotty conundrum, Clegg decided to let the Tories make that decision for him. So when the Tories came to the ‘wholly unexpected‘ (NOTE FOR THE HARD-OF-THINKING: we are now in the wildest throes of satire) conclusion that people without money are patently the most lucrative source of cash, Clegg appears to have said, “Well, who’d have thought the Tories of all people would make a call like that? Still I’m sure they’re doing it for totally unbiased reasons…” and from there he just let the Tories decide for him which policies to vote for.
Doggedly refusing to be diverted from his unswerving course of 180-degree turnarounds, Clegg broke new grounds in the cause of indecisiveness when he decided that he could continue to be indecisive even about policies that had already been decided upon and enforced. To this end, he put forward opposition to the Bedroom Tax he had helped implement as party policy, and then decided that he had not decided any such thing, but had merely put the idea out as a speculative question – one he then decided to answer himself with ‘no’. He then publicly spoke out vehemently against the Bedroom Tax, stating emphatically that it should be repealed. Then only yesterday, when Labour put forward a motion in the House Of Commons to repeal the Tax, Clegg once again impressed everyone with his capacity for not making up his mind about policies that he eagerly enforces while speaking out against them; he and his party quite naturally voted to keep the Bedroom Tax in place for the remainder of the current Parliament.
I’ve written before that if you vote for the Tories you vote for petulance. But the strange thing is – and it’s a painful lesson I have only learned myself during this Parliament – if you vote for the LibDems, you’re not really voting for anything in particular at all. This is because, in doing so, you vote for a party that claims to be centrist, but in fact doesn’t really know how much radicalism it is prepared to stomach. This means that in a Coalition, the LibDems can be dragged to quite shocking extremes, even though their rhetoric appears to be opposed to them. The hope when the Coalition was formed in 2010 was that the LibDems would function as a ‘drag-factor’ on Tory extremism and cruelty. In practise, they have scarcely caused the Tories pause for thought, and have shown a frightening willingness to sacrifice almost anything to get an agreement on a Referendum for a fairly minor electoral reform – a Referendum that ended in a ‘No’ vote in any event.
On the one hand, it could be seen as a symptom of maturity in British politics that the two parties were able to come to an agreement and form a Government; certainly that could never happen in the tribally-polarised USA, a fact so painfully evident there at the moment with one party holding both Houses, while the other party has the Presidency. Further, I am quite prepared to concede that the Coalition, for all of its amorality and ineptitude, has managed to hold together far longer than I was anticipating back in 2010. One could even argue that Clegg has shown a measure of loyalty by staying in Coalition and fulfilling his promises to support Tory legislation, even after the primary goal of electoral reform became plainly unachievable.
But on the other hand, it has come as a horrible shock over the last four-and-a-half years to learn just how much Nick Clegg and his party were prepared to concede in order to get a few seats in the Cabinet. So much, in fact, that none of their supposed principles of fairness and progressivism appear to have left any real mark on any of the more significant policies of the Coalition at all. Loyalty to Coalition allies is one thing, but loyalty to the voters who put their trust in Clegg in the first place has been painfully notable by its absence. By facilitating, where in the past they had voiced opposition, the LibDems have allowed themselves to be part of a Government more extreme and hard-right than even Margaret Thatcher’s administration had been when it had a comfortable single-party majority.
If being too quick to make decisions can cost you a lot of votes, letting someone else make all the decisions for you can cost you a lot of seats – especially if those decisions are immoral and incompetent – and this is why there is a real danger of the Liberal Democrats having a single-digit presence in the House Of Commons by next Autumn. They have been ineffectual on the issues people voted for them for, and have been dominated by the policies those same people voted against. So the Liberal Democrats have looked both treacherous and ineffectual, offering people nothing to vote for.
Centrism is not meant to be a synonym for indecision, nor one for ‘manoeuvrable’ loyalties, nor even one for blindly following someone else, but the LibDems have let it become all three. In so doing, and in allowing that indecision to become a tolerance of astonishing social cruelty by Government, they are now as morally-bankrupt and as unelectable as the Conservatives.