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Wednesday, 18 August 2010

A distinctive voice in government

I've been away for a short while, so please excuse the lack of posts of late.

Today marks 100 days of coalition government. It's been a more than interesting first hundred days. It is, of course, still early days but early signs are that Lib Dem involvement in government is producing positive results.

The most curious thing is that, over the last three months or so, the most vocal opponent of the coalition government has not been the official opposition, which is so pre-occupied with its own difficulties and its leadership contest that instead of providing constructive opposition ( e.g. asking tough questions of Cameron and his cabinet) it has resorted to cheap, tribalist and cynical remarks from the likes of Prescott, Straw and Ed Miliband - aimed almost exclusively at the Lib Dem leadership.

No, it's not the Labour Party but the media who have been the most outspoken critics of the coalition government. On one level, I welcome a critical and analytical media which questions, interrogates and challenges. It's what we need in a strong democracy.

But what we have witnessed, especially from the daily newspapers, has gone beyond the analytical and critical. It verges on institutional hostility. Almost without exception, as if demonstrating en masse that the journalistic profession can not grasp the concept of coalition, no story can be told without reference to "splits", "divisions", "tensions" and "possible defections". It really is tiresome, and it certainly isn't news.

The media simply doesn't "get" this idea of coalition government. You know, that you can have two partners who sometimes disagree on important issues but are committed to working through their differences. Obviously journalists are all single people.

Inevitably, the daily papers are going to want to find news stories where there aren't any. It's natural that they will exaggerate the nature of any disagreement and speculate about the potential fall-out. But it's the sheer vitriol that I struggle with. The Daily Telegraph in particular has been unfriendly towards even the notion of Liberal Democrat involvement in government; the Daily Mirror and the Daily Record have been equally keen to claim the Lib Dems have "sold out"; The Guardian, which backed the Lib Dems and the possibility of coalition prior to the election, now feels it has a right to attack the party for pursuing a responsible role in government. Decca Aitkenhead, writing for The Guardian on 9th August, claimed that "almost everyone I know ...has been saying more or less the same thing; that [the Lib Dems] have traded their principles for a taste of power, and betrayed its supporters". Even in Scotland, where the likes of The Scotsman and The Herald are more familiar with the politics of coalition, they have similarly looked to create sensationalist stories in regards the coalition's prospects, with The Herald helpfully pinpointing a number of seats it expects the party to lose in next year's Scottish Parliamentary elections as a result of being associated with the Conservatives.

I could write a very lengthy post detailing this poisonous and badly informed media campaign to discredit both the Lib Dems and the coalition. I'm sure it would be interesting to examine the motives of the press in being constantly on the lookout for tensions and division, or relentlessly rubbishing the coalition. But to be honest I'm not as interested in them as they are in us. And I'm also convinced that the media only speak for themselves, and that the public are far more canny than The Herald suggests. Most people understand and appreciate that responsible, mature, grown-up politics requires discussion and co-operation - and that successful coalition means more than one partner getting everything they want, all of the time.

Instead, I want to shatter the principal myth being peddled by the press: that the Liberal Democrats have sold out, are impotent and ineffective, lack a distinctive voice and have no influence on government. This product of wishful thinking on the part of the press is far more dangerous than the witch-hunt for splits and tensions because in fairness it's more believable. No-one really expects Simon Hughes to emulate Michael Meadowcroft and form a new party. Neither does anyone seriously think there's any real likelihood of division in government given the commitment of both Cameron and Clegg to ensuring the coalition succeeds. But, in the absence of much in the way of quality, reasoned, informed and realistic commentary on the Lib Dems' role in government, it is easier for the public to accept the lie that the party lacks principles and influence.

A couple of weeks ago I watched the Six o'clock News as Prime Minister David Cameron announced what I will diplomatically describe as controversial proposals to reform the benefits and social housing systems. As someone who works in the field of adult mental health, I have some understanding of the human dimension to this admittedly complex issue and recognise that such "radical" (i.e. ill-considered) changes would contribute negatively to many people's mental well-being. There are complex social issues at the heart of it which Cameron clearly has no idea how to resolve. It was as if the PM was looking for some easy headline with which to placate the less progressive wing of his party. But I was particularly horrified because I couldn't see a single Liberal Democrat idea in any of Cameron's announcement. It was hardly the product of "coalition" thinking.

Cameron tried to sell this as policy, although it clearly was nothing of the sort. What was more disturbing than Cameron's narrow-minded views was the fact that he had not discussed the issue with his coalition partners. There had been no dialogue whatsoever. As Simon Hughes pointed out the following day, "[this is just] a prime ministerial idea – it has no more validity...I think our party would need a lot of persuading that it has merit or could work. Council tenancy agreements have not been discussed by the coalition, and any idea or proposal floated so far is nothing more than that – an idea or a proposal and not a policy. So the ideas put forward by David Cameron this week in no way represent the policy of the coalition and certainly do not represent the policy of Liberal Democrats."

While this incident begs questions about Cameron's leadership style as well as his political judgement, it also highlights the influence of the Liberal Democrats. Within hours it became clear that "most" Lib Dem MPs (including Nick Clegg) were opposed to Cameron's proposals and that they resented having not been consulted. In fact, almost the entire Lib Dem parliamentary party stood up to the Prime Minister and essentially told him that his conduct was unacceptable. Hardly behaviour one associates with the toothless, spineless and impotent.

Did the media report on such a show of strength from the Lib Dems? You can bet it didn't!

The Lib Dems also have had some significant policy success. Let's take, for example, wheel clamping. It's been illegal to clamp vehicles on private land in Scotland for some time, but last week it was announced that the social menace of wheel clamping and vehicle removal is finally being dealt with in England and Wales. And about time too - the illiberal practice of one citizen punishing another has no place in modern society.

There have been so many personal stories of "rogue" clampers and their abusive behaviour that current arrangements clearly were not working. This is why the Liberal Democrats, in their manifesto, promised to "regulate the parking system to remove unfairness and stop private sector wheel-clamping". No other party promised to do this.

And now, this policy has become law. And this welcome change can be directly attributed to Lib Dem involvement at the heart of government. It represents a key policy success, and demonstrates that the party is making a positive difference. I noticed that the Daily Mail and Daily Express were absolutely delighted with this development, but do you suppose they gave credit to the party who advocated this change? You can bet they didn't!

As Vince Cable points out, there are many other examples of the Lib Dems distinctive ideas influencing government policy. He says (in an interview in The Guardian, 9/8/10): "we've got principles we've tried to inject into the coalition's thinking. The whole civil liberties agenda has changed out of recognition...and on tax policy, the Tory government on its own would never have dreamed of some of the things that appeared in the budget. This idea of lifting the tax threshold is something I've fought for years in our party to get accepted, and it's a very big thing if you're a low paid worker. Getting the bank levy through, getting the pension properly indexed..."

But, for me, one of the areas in which the Lib Dems have been most influential - and which has been almost completely ignored by the press - is prison reform. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke recently announced that new prison reforms would save the government money while "shutting the revolving door of crime and reoffending". Essentially, he was advocating a change in sentencing policy and admitting that the government are examining alternative sanctions and reducing the prison population.

On one level, this is a response to economic reality. Andrew Neilson, from the Howard League for Penal Reform, wryly observes that "a fiscal crisis can create the space for a sensible strategy of decarceration". However, on another level, it demonstrates the influence of the Liberal Democrats in shaping a responsible, and more workable, justice system.

The coalition government hasn't fully developed the policy yet, but what can be said with some certainty is that the coalition's position is a long way from the Conservatives' populist "tough on crime" approach. Let's be honest; their manifesto was full of the usual backward-looking rhetoric such as "early deportation of foreign national prisoners" and "[no] early release". They campaigned on a platform of lengthening sentences, locking up more criminals and - bizarrely - even suggested the almost unworkable notion of converting ships into prisons in order to boost capacity. In addition to this, the Tories had pledged to continue Labour's prison building programme which would increase prison capacity by more than 10 per cent by 2014.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats' manifesto focused on "making the justice system work to rehabilitate criminals and reduce crime", arguing that "once a criminal has been caught, it is vital that the punishment they are given helps to turn them away from crime, and set them back on the straight and narrow. Too many politicians have talked tough, meting out ever-longer prison sentences, but doing far too little to tackle reoffending and to stop crime happening in the first place."

What the government is now doing is to move away from the sensationalist and irresponsible line the Conservatives fought the election on and examine more progressive ideas for the future of the UK justice system. There is a recognition that real change requires dealing with the complex social and dependency problems which often result in reoffending. Significantly, even the Conservative Party are beginning to realise that simply banging people up to serve short-term sentences often does little more than to isolate prisoners from their jobs, families and communities. And it costs - it is more expensive to keep a prisoner behind bars than it is to send a child to Eton.

It's difficult to predict exactly what form the coalition's policy will finally take, but so far Clarke has made promising noises about "intelligent sentencing", reducing the prison population and moving towards a more results-based system to combat reoffending in conjunction with various charitable and voluntary organisations. Clarke has rejected much of the Conservatives' position and is essentially singing from the Lib Dem hymnsheet. He has already been criticised by Michael Howard, which is sufficient evidence that "traditional" Conservatives are uncomfortable with the direction being taken.

What can be said is that this change in direction and emphasis on rehabilitation would not become policy without the influence of Lib Dem thinking. As we can see, the Lib Dems are not just a moderating influence on the Conservatives but a coalition partner with ideas of their own. I don't believe for a minute that the likes of Eric Pickles and Teresa May would have accepted such a "betrayal" of Tory dogma on crime and justice without Lib Dem involvement in government.

I am quietly confident that, when the detail of the coalition's justice policy is announced, it will contain recognisably Liberal Democrat ideals, philosophy and principles. I wonder then if the press will give credit where credit is due?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw this on the news yesterday, some right wing Tory Mp getting very irate about the way the coalition was planning alternatives to prison. The fact that such reactionary tories are getting so irritated just shows how influential the lib dems actually are.