8 Progressive Moves of the Coalition Government

I’m not exactly a fan of the last government, but given that I indulge in a lot of Tory-bashing and yet complain about excessive partisanship in British and American politics, I felt this list would be a testing and productive experiment to engage in. It is easy enough to pay lip service to the concept of rising above tribal politics but that depends on being able to evaluate the positions of your opponents on their merits. And in my own case, where I have less common ground with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats than even many in my own party, it can be more difficult.

1.The introduction of same-sex marriage. Few people would have expected it to be a Conservative-led government to be the one to introduce same-sex marriage: indeed David Cameron took a big political risk in forcing the policy past the opposition of the majority of his own backbenchers. But now the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is a practice that has been buried in the history books. It is heartening to see the fight for equal marriage being won even in the more conservative parts of the Western world.

2. Referendum on electoral reform. It is already half-forgotten about, and those who do remember are largely constitutional reformers bitter about it being turned into a vote on Nick Clegg. But after a century of debate coming to nothing- despite New Labour’s supposed commitment to replacing First Past The Post- the people got their first chance in British history to decide how to elect their representatives.

3. The pupil premium. The case for providing extra funding that ‘follows’ state school pupils from disadvantaged background is overwhelming. There is so much evidence that shows such children are more likely to need and benefit from various forms of extra support that schools simply cannot provide without additional resources. I do believe the last government cared about improving educational opportunities for children. It was this vigourous enthusiasm that led to them floating daft ideas like evening classes for pupils on free school meals. (This struck me as punishing children with extra work just for being poor!) Sadly the government chose to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, which has rendered sixth form education nonviable for thousands of those very same students.

4. Universal Free School Meals for under 7s. There were so many obvious benefits to this policy that I outlined in this article at the time.

5. Rationalisation of Stamp Duty. The Chancellor has certainly made his mark on the tax system. One of the few improvements he made was the recent transformation of Stamp Duty that has been needed ever since house prices went crazy in the early 2000s. As well as quietly raising rates on expensive houses acquired by non-UK residents, Osborne did away with the ‘block’ rates. Previously someone buying a £249,999 house would pay 1% duty on the entire value, while a £250,000 house would attract a 3% tax also on the entire value. I am glad to see the back of this absurd structure in favour of income-tax style phased bands. It would be even better to go further and scrap Stamp Duty altogether on the primary residence in favour of imposing Capital Gains Tax. Would that not represent a move from taxing home ownership to taxing unearned rises in house values?

6. Meeting International Development budget target of 0.7% of GDP. It might not be popular, but the desperate poverty that exists in the world doesn’t go away because the nation’s finances need repairing. Our obligation as one of the richest countries in the world to help is not a luxury spending item we can discard, so I applaud the principled position to protect the Department for International Development’s budget from spending cuts.

7. Accepting Parliament’s opposition to intervention in Syria. Although the Prime Minister did not actually have to seek Parliament’s consent for his proposed military actions, he made constitutional history by doing so. It is to his credit that he did so and to Ed Miliband’s credit that he decided to join the opposition to war, thus defeating the government.

8. Cabinet appointments made for the long term. Gone are the days of the Cabinet musical chairs that Blair used to maintain a vice-like grip on his government. Where previously a minister could not be certain of remaining in post for much longer that 6 months, Cameron seemed to prefer stability and allowing ministers time to see their own policies to fruition. Most key people remained in position for four years of the Coalition, while the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary, Deputy Prime Minister and Business Secretary all remained for the full term.

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Coalition Rocked by Warsi’s Resignation

 

The resignation of a Cabinet-rank minister at the Foreign Office over a controversial aspect of foreign policy was always going to hurt the Government. But when it comes nine months before a general election, and from one of the few a) women b) Muslims c) northerners d) non-Etonians in the Cabinet, the political costs are inflated further. The Coalition has come under increasing public pressure over its complicity, along with other Western governments, in the continued sale of weapons to Israel despite ubiquitous hand-wringing and condemnation by the same governments of the killing of 2,000 Palestinians by the Israeli Defence Force.

It is therefore unfortunate that some, like Tory backbencher Michael Fabricant, are interpreting Lady Sayeeda Warsi’s resignation as a stand on a ‘Muslim’ issue. The problems with the crude interpretation of the Israel/Palestine conflict as a religious issue must be obvious. Whilst it is true that the majority of Muslims tend to be more sympathetic to the Palestinians than the Israelis and vice versa, a large minority of Jews condemn the actions of the Israeli government. No, the conflict is, as far as its observers are concerned, more of an ethical matter than a religious one.

Let’s try to disregard the historical background to events in the Middle East. What would have seen before the present ceasefire is two nations, Nation A and Nation B. Nation A is flourishing and expanding into the fragmented territory of the other. It is well-defended and strong, but not enough to guarantee its civilians total security from the rockets that are fired from Nation B. Nation B, impoverished and overcrowded, has turned to a group of fanatics to lead it. The fanatics have dragged the nation into war in a desperate but violent bid to end the stranglehold Nation A has over it, through a blockade and the creeping annexation of its remaining territory (in defiance of international law). So the fanatics fired the rockets, in full knowledge that they could not defend their people from the torrent of bombs, bullets and missiles that Nation A would retaliate with. As hospitals, schools and power stations were destroyed, 2,000 died as the result of a futile gesture of hostility.

Would you give either side more weapons or ammunition with which to try to kill the other? Would arming either party not mean complying in the perpetuation of this violence?

Our governments appear to either not to agree, or not to care. The US is to allow its arms manufacturers to sell Israel the bullets it needs to replenish stocks used up this month. The UK government has opted to ‘review’ the export licenses local arms manufacturers have been awarded to ship weapons to Israel.

Baroness Warsi, a number of backbench Conservative MPs and the Liberal Democrats have all said that an immediate arms embargo should be enacted, at least until a permanent peace agreement is reached. Labour is doing an excellent job of sounding angry but not taking a decisive position. That is a shame, as if the Opposition, Lib Dems and Tory backbenches united, they could easily bend the Government to their will. If the UK led the way with an embargo, it could shame the US and other powers into following, increasing pressure on Israel to seek a sustainable peace settlement.

Burnham: Pause NHS Privatisation

NHS privatisation is being forced through at pace and scale. Commissioners have been ordered to put all services out to the market. NHS spending on private and other providers has gone through the £10 billion barrier for the first time. When did the British public ever give their consent for this?

 

It is indefensible for the character of the country’s most valued institution to be changed in this way without the public being given a say.

Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Andy Burnham MP

Andy Burnham has written to the Chief Executive of NHS England to ask him to postpone all outsourcing deals until after the next General Election. He has made the request, which will not be agreed to, on the grounds that it would be undemocratic to proceed with such a radical change to a public service without implicit public endorsement. Burnham will be accused of gimmickry: don’t all governments accelerate the introduction of their policies before an election so as to render them irreversible if they lose? However, the Labour spokesman on Health is correct to say the Coalition lacks a mandate for the Health and Social Care (i.e. NHS privatisation) Act. The manifesto of the dominant Coalition partner guaranteed that no such Act would be approved. Politicians are often prone to neglecting their election commitments.

So what would a Labour government actually do for the NHS?

Despite agreeing with Burnham that the composition and purpose of the NHS should not be further distorted until/unless there is a popular mandate for the policy, I see no prospect of his request being heeded, which is a shame. There is also the risk that, if Labour were to win next year’s election, they would quietly drop their pledges to reverse the Coalition’s privatisations. Critics point to New Labour even accelerating the privatisation of public services after 1997.

When it comes to the NHS, I think this is unlikely, for several reasons.

Firstly, Ed Miliband is not Tony Blair. Tony Blair was much more of a despotic presidential leader, and excercised tight control over his Cabinet’s actions. Accordingly, his Health ministers would not have enjoyed the same security and independence that Andy Burnham (who is almost a Labour heavyweight now) does. Also, I doubt Ed Miliband has the ability to carelessly lie to the electorate that Blair has demonstrated. The Miliband fan club isn’t huge, but even his opponents are likely to concede that he’s honest.

Secondly, Labour has generally lived up to its stated main aim on healthcare. In 1997, it promised more resources for a service that was intentionally being run down. The NHS budget was then tripled in just 13 years. Blair might have discarded his opposition to PFI contracts (see below) and outsourcing, but he was only disappointing the few policy wonks who were paying attention.Today, Labour is stressing the importance of a publicly-owned NHS, and so this is where they will have to deliver.

Lastly, Andy Burnham is almost certain to retain the health brief for the duration of a Mililband government’s first term. Burnham is hugely popular with the party (and no threat to the leadership) and knows the health brief exceptionally well. His personal record is a sound one: as Health Secretary for the last year of the Brown government, he did not sign off a single PFI deal. He resisted further privatisation quite well for a relatively unknown figure in under a neo-liberal prime minister.

However, there are important limitations to what Labour is currently offering. They are merely proposing the restriction of outsourcing in the NHS, not its outright elimination. I don’t understand how the NHS can “put people before profit” when it is still infested with for-profit organisations running key services in a ridiculous ‘internal market’. This conflict of interests; of public good and commercial gain, is what leads to absurdities like Burger King franchises opening in NHS hospitals- which are struggling with a heart disease epidemic caused by excess consumption of junk food!

Furthermore, Labour is silent on the continued use of the awful Private Finance Initiative to fund almost all hospital construction projects. PFI deals see large corporations, not the Treasury, lending NHS trusts (or other public institutions) the money for project, in exchange for massively inflated and protracted repayments. Some hospitals pay 12 times the actual cost of a PFI construction project. A south London NHS Trust was recently bankrupted by its PFI deal, and many could follow in the next couple of decades. So why are politicians so in love with PFI?

PFI deals are kept off the Treasury books, so are not included in the National Debt. In this way, the £300 billion that Brits will pay for £55 billion worth of PFI projects is spirited away. We’ll still pay it, but at least we think the National Debt is 20% lower than it effectively is. Also, New Labour and the Tories were convinced that the private sector is more efficient than the public, even though we pay more than £5 for every £1 borrowed using PFI.

So in order to save the NHS, the government must spare it the drain on its resources that PFI repayments inflict. The government should enact a mass buyout of all PFI contracts at their face value; ban all new ones; and put in place a multibillion public works loans fund to replace PFI. This move would save the NHS over £40 billion over the next 25 years.

If the demise of the NHS were a horror film  (it feels like one!), Labour is offering to hit the ‘pause’ button. But Britain really needs somebody to reach a little further and ‘rewind’.

Official: It’s “Perfectly Legitimate” to Discriminate Against Benefits Claimants

An individual private business will make commercial decisions. If they actually decide they don’t want to have somebody on housing benefit in the future, that’s a perfectly legitimate thing for them to do.

Kris Hopkins MP (Con)

Kris Hopkins, Minister for Housing, gave an interview to the BBC’s Panorama programme last night in which he defended the blanket bans on, and evictions of, tenants claiming Housing Benefit (HB) by private landlords. Under the Coalition’s cuts to the benefit, payments are capped and now go into tenants’ bank accounts rather than directly to the landlords.  Unsurprisingly, this has led to some tenants falling behind on their rent, which has led to the exclusion of all HB claimants from much of the private rented sector.

Who’d claim Housing Benefit these days? Between crude caps that exclude you from half of the country; heartless property barons arbitrarily making you homeless; and ministers endorsing your treatment as a second class citizen, you’d only ask for state help if you absolutely had to. (Err, wait a second…)

https://i0.wp.com/www.cartoonstock.com/newscartoons/cartoonists/kam/lowres/animals-landlord-rental-tenant-tenancy_agreement-rental_contract-kamn629l.jpg

It’s inevitable that landlords will only rent to people who can afford the property. That is “legitimate”, and it is up to government to expand the social housing sector to ensure that the poor are adequately housed. However, the exclusion of anybody who receives Housing Benefit from a property is not a valid business practice. Although those on HB are, by definition, poor, the majority are perfectly capable of setting aside the money for rent. Even when seriously hard-up, most tenants will prioritise rent above all other expenses up to food. That’s because keeping a roof over one’s head is much more important than keeping bailiffs from taking the sofa.

I must say, Coalition policy about HB reveals a lot about their attitude. The cuts to the benefit were not about hitting the “scroungers” to support “hardworking families”, whatever the Tory rhetoric was. The majority of HB claimants are in work. No, this is an old-fashioned campaign to attack the poor, regardless of their employment status.

Whilst it is not impossible for a family on HB to find a home to rent, it is becoming more difficult. Look online at a rentals website, or in the property section of a local paper (if you’ve still got one) and many adverts will say “Sorry no DHSS”. This is infuriating on two counts. Not only is there the social exclusion of benefits claimants, often the working poor, but there is the term. If the landlords were that “sorry” they wouldn’t impose that particular condition. Much the same principle applied when the “no Blacks, no Irish” caveats were ubiquitous before the 1960s. (Also, the DHSS, or Department for Health and Social Security, which used to pay out HB, hasn’t existed since 1988. I know it’s a petty complaint, but I think people should get their facts straight.)

Anyway, a number of those receiving HB are pensioners or disabled. Is the Minister for Housing seriously supporting discrimination against those who, for perfectly “legitimate” reasons, do not earn their own income?

I don’t like to think the worst of people, but there’s little to suggest Hopkins is concerned by the injustices he has helped to create. If he was, these “no DHSS” polices would be banned.

Conservatives Condemn Themselves to Opposition

Press stories are circulating this morning about David Cameron’s determination to avoid a second-term coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It is said that Cameron wants a firm commitment in the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto to rule out a power-sharing coalition in the event of another hung parliament. In the event of the Conservative Party failing to secure a majority, it would seek to form a single-party minority government. It’s fully understandable that Cameron feels the need to placate his party after it has spent the past 4 years having several of its favourite policies vetoed by the Lib Dems (or the “yellow peril” as one Conservative backbencher described them). Yet in doing so, Cameron has almost entirely eliminated the prospect of a second Conservative-led government.

There are several assumptions which lead to this conclusion. They are assumptions, but they are valid ones. Firstly, the Conservatives’ popularity peaked in 2010. After half a decade of gruelling austerity and generalised incompetence on the Conservatives’ watch, there is little chance that they could improve on their electoral position in 2010, when they did not have such political baggage. In any case, Government advisors now estimate that the Conservatives will need 40% of the vote to command a majority, compared to 36% gained last time. Therefore, the Conservatives can only lose seats, not gain them. Accordingly, Cameron will have to rely on smaller political parties to form a government.

This brings us to assumption number two: smaller parties will not be able to co-operate with the Conservatives without some form of formal agreement. But all agreements have been ruled out. Yet that issue probably won’t arise because no party other than the Lib Dems will have enough MPs to guarantee the minority government’s survival. For example, if the Conservatives held 300 seats (about the number they have now), they would need support from 26 MPs from outside the party: the overall figure for the small parties hovers around 30. And that includes vehemently anti-Tory groups like Plaid Cymru and the SDLP. Scratch that, then.

In short, the Conservatives would need Lib Dem support for a second term, as their only opportunity to form a government arises if the Lib Dems hold the balance of power.

Imagine you are Nick Clegg. The results have just come in from the 2015 general election, and your 35 remaining MPs (your actions in coalition with the Conservatives were very unpopular) can form a majority with the Conservatives or Labour. A second alliance with the former would end your party as an independent political force, and in any case, they have refused to grant your party any role in the new government. The latter will enter a full coalition, and co-operating with them will re-establish your party as the vanguard of the centre ground of British politics. Which would you choose?

As a Labour member, I detest the idea of having my party work with the Lib Dems. But if there is no prospect of them playing kingmaker in a hung parliament, then some quite tight preconditions can be imposed on any Lab-Lib pact. For a start, anybody Lib Dem who has collaberated with the Conservative-led government and their toxic policies from within the current Cabinet should be excluded from the frontbench of a centre-left government. The likes of Vince Cable and Danny Alexander must be confined to the backbenches while Labour ministers undo the horrednous damage that they have inflicted on the country. It’s still hardly ideal.

The best policy of all is to ensure that as many geniunely left-wing MPs are elected as possible.

About Danny Alexander’s Dead Body

When press stories circulated a few days ago that many Liberal Democrats had become worried about Danny Alexander going “Treasury native”, it made the Chief Secretary to the Treasury panic. Alexander has been the Lib Dems’ voice in the Treasury, and the Chancellor’s number two, since the third week of the Coalition Government. After colluding in four blood-soaked (metaphorically!) Budgets, it finally occured to the Lib Dems that Alexander is just a little too ready and willing to wield the axe on public services. Certainly, there is very little evidence of the caring liberalism that brought us the state pension and public libraries in the harsh spending policy of this Government.

Aware of the risk of falling out with his party, Alexander tried to reassert his progressive credentials. He rushed out an undertaking that Conservative demands to cut the top rate of Income Tax again- this time from 45p to 40p- would only pass “over [his] dead body”. He knows full well that this is a non-pledge: the Conservatives will not risk unpopularity by giving further tax breaks to their rich friends in the run-up to the 2015 election. By the time the election has taken place, and in the unlikely event that the Lib Dems enter a second coalition with the Conservatives, Alexander will have another Cabinet post- few junior and mid-tier Cabinet ministers keep the same post for more than one term.

It also shows where Alexander’s priorities lie. I favour redistributive taxation, but high taxes on the rich have to be a means unto an end. The Labour movement learned that to its cost a generation ago. What’s the point of defending the 45p tax band when you’re allowing spending cuts that make young people homeless or deny the disabled benefit? To be fair, Alexander would be preventing a £1.5 billion tax cut, but it’s not as if the Conservatives wouldn’t impose a tax cut elsewhere, perhaps in Inheritance Tax.

I don’t know if the Lib Dem grassroots share my analysis, so I’d advise the party that Alexander’s show of independence is unconvincing. If he fought the Lib Dems’ corner on spending cuts more strongly, then he’d be able to claim that he’s not the Treasury poodle that most of us think he is.

Socialism In One Borough?

Ken Livingstone's Business Card

Ken Livingstone’s business card (Photo credit: Mex Beady Eyes)

Local government is considered by many in the UK to be a joke. Services provided by ‘the council’ are generally understaffed and under-resourced. Local democracy is non-existent, given that the one-in-three people who do vote do so not on local issues, but national ones. The consquence is that 95% of councillors can do almost whatever they like without affecting their electability. But most importantly, councils only control about one quarter of their revenues: most of what they spend is paid for and regulated by Whitehall. It is therefore unsurprising that we seldom hear of councils being the launchpad of radical change, even though this happens more often than you’d think.

In the past thirty years, various policies such as local currencies; universal free school meals; the living wage; nuclear-free zones; council house building and more have been dreamt up and put into practice by councils of various political hues. On the whole, these have been good ideas, but in the age of Militant it meant a handful of councils running into terrible financial problems and being subject to government intervention. While the Labour Party routed out the destructive and politically toxic Militant tendency (and the pendulum swung a little too far the other way, towards bland centrisim) the Thatcher government dismantled the Greater London Authority, fearful that Ken Livingstone’s socialist programme was proving far too popular amongst Londoners.

Nevertheless, is the time not right for councils to use a little spark of radicalism and creativity to counterbalance the Coalition’s austerity agenda? Call it what you like, Municipal Socialism, high spending, local democracy, there is a school of thought which suggests that local government has tremendous power in its hands if it uses it wisely. For example, Tower Hamlets borough council has restored its own version of the Education Maintenance Allowance after the Coalition scrapped it; abolished fees for social care even as the national Labour Party rowed back from its plan for a National Care Service; and has now scrapped translation services, instructing the borough’s large immigrant community to take up its free English language classes if they want to access services.

I’m confident that if Tower Hamlets can do all this despite draconian spending cuts, people will begin asking why it is that their council can’t as well. Remember that Ken Livingstone established a London register of same-sex relationships which led to the creation of civil partnership in just a few years, and same-sex marriage just a few years after that. Southwark council introduced free school meals for all primary school children in 2011, and the Conservative government is rolling out the policy nationally next year.

So whatever administration you have in your Town Hall, ask what your Labour, Independent, Green or nationalist councillors are doing to make their community better. If you are not satisfied that your town is being adequately defended against the tidal wave of cuts and reforms that threaten to divide and weaken us, then it’s down to you to “be the change”. Don’t be dissuaded by talk of what is supposedly impossible: we can make things better if we put some elbow grease into it.

The House Of Shuffles

Yesterday, the Coalition and the Labour Party both reshuffled their frontbench teams. To date, the Prime Minister has adopted the wise strategy of avoiding frequent reshuffles, but that policy appears to have slipped: we already know that Tory Cabinet ministers will be subjected to a bigger reshuffle come the spring: yesterday’s movement of junior ministers was a means of preparing some select loyalists for ‘High Office’. By contrast, Labour’s shadow cabinet has a markedly different complexion compared to 24 hours ago.

There are approximately 25 Cabinet posts and a further 75 junior ministers. This means that approximately one third of the governing party(ies)’ MPs in Parliament are awarded a ministerial post (and one quarter of the Opposition will shadow them). In that case, how can it be that the Prime Minister feels that there are too few women and northern MPs (both groups woefully underrepresented in the Government) on his party’s frontbench to promote to his Cabinet? The leadership is almost openly saying that it wants to look less universally white, ageing, male and southern, and yet it has so few junior ministers of counterbalancing groups that it can’t even appoint a few token women Cabinet ministers in one go! That’s a telling sign of the state of the parliamentary Conservative party.

Not that the Opposition is perfect either: women make up 40% of the shadow cabinet and continue to be a minority in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Anything short of a true gender balance (and that does cut both ways: I’d disapprove of men being underrepresented too) is imperfect.

That said, I do broadly approve of the changes Miliband has made to his shadow cabinet. Liam Byrne (former post: welfare), Stephen Twigg (education) and Jim Murphy (defence) have all been moved to less influential positions, which has led to media squealing about a “purge of the Blairites”. Though the changes do mark a shift to the left within Labour, I wouldn’t run away with the idea that this was Miliband’s only objective. For example, the installation of the relatively unknown Vernon Coaker in Defence is a means by which Labour can change its policy on the Trident nuclear weapons system without the pro-Trident Jim Murphy causing trouble (nobody knows what the change will be, but I gather it’s important). Similarly, a new Transport spokesperson will facilitate a U-turn on the High Speed Two rail project.

But the most important change is the appointment of Rachael Reeves to Work and Pensions. She will make a good opponent to Iain Duncan Smith: at last, Labour has a spokesperson who will apply real Labour values to the issues facing the welfare state and the employment market, rather than shaping policy on what the Daily Mail will accept. In summary, Miliband has shown a bit of leftwing steel just at the right time, and should benefit from a united frontbench centred on the soft left ideology he has come to symbolise.

Let us briefly return to the Conservatives. We can expect a much larger and more exciting reshuffle in the Spring, in a clear departure from Cameron’s good policy of not unrooting ministers every year or so. That is unfortunate, because government benefits when its day-to-day leaders are in posts for long enough to implement a coherent programme which they are responsible for and able to follow through on. That Cameron feels unable to do this is simply a cost of his government’s lack of windowdressing diversity. Not to worry, though. The Party will eventually modernise. In thirty or forty years.

Germany Looks To The Right

The centre-right Christian Democratic Union has won a resounding 41.5% of the vote in Germany’s federal elections. Under the system of proportional representation (although parties winning under 5% of the vote are not represented in the German parliament), this leaves the CDU just five seats short of an overall majority- a landslide victory in German terms. It is widely felt that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s consensual political approach and personal popularity are, together with Germany’s strong economy, responsible for the surprisingly emphatic electoral swing.

The three other parties represented in the parliament are the Social Democrats (historically the leaders of any centre-left government), the Greens and the former-communist Left Party. Typically for the left, these groups are able to unite and defeat the right, but are too divided to do so. The Social Democrats (SPD) made cast-iron guarantees to the electorate that it would not share power with the Left Party, calculating that any ambiguity on that point would cost the broad left ‘bloc’ more seats than it would gain by adding the Left Party. That is unfortunate, given that in many other European states, communists have propped up social democratic governments almost unconditionally. However, the SPD has burnt that particular bridge, and should respect the promise they made to the German people. Thus they commit themselves to Opposition until at least 2017.

Or do they? Given that Merkel lacks a majority, she will need the support of either the SPD in a ‘Grand Coalition’ or the Greens in a Surreal Alternative Universe. The Greens, much like their American, Australian or British equivalents, would never contemplate working with a rightwing government, so that isn’t an option. Yet the ‘Grand Coalition’ idea is a uniquely Continental one which might be unthinkable to us: can you imagine a Democrat-Republican or Labour-Conservative pact? They’d be absolute disasters. Unfortunately, there is growing public pressure on the SPD to bury their ideology and their identity in a conservative-dominated coalition.

The SPD would be in a weak position in coalition talks, and would be unable to gain significant concessions on matters of investment in public services, social liberalism or the national future. While they are accountable for the actions of a government they can barely influence, the country would have to look to the Greens for anything resembling opposition. In other words, there’s little reason for the SPD to support the CDU. They should not enter any coalition.

The best outcome would be for the CDU to form a minority government, free to decide on its own legislative programme but dependent on a small group of outside supporters for every bill on a case-by-case basis. This allows the left to force through progressive legislation of a kind whilst honouring the wishes of the electorate. Sadly, I think the outcome will not be this equitable.

Footnote:

The centre-right Free Democrats, who until now have governed in coalition with the CDU, have lost their place in parliament for the first time in its history. I doubt many will mourn the loss of the most useless, uninspiring and fruitless political movements in history.

Losers, Lefties and Liberals at Conference

Britain is now well into Party Conference season, with the Liberal Democrats now midway through their annual gathering in Glasgow. The desperation of the party leadership is becoming increasingly transparent as, 600 days away from election day, they are derided by the majority of voters as being ‘ yellow Tories’ and by the rest for being a barrier to the Tory leadership and their so-called “tough decisions”. Therefore, Clegg and Co. have been busily working on ‘distinct policies’ that they can claim credit for implementing.

So this weekend we were treated by the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the news that supermarket plastic bags will soon be subject to a 5p charge and schools will be issued with advice not to use expensive exclusive uniform suppliers. Who said that Lib Dem Conference was boring? To be fair, the inflated cost of school uniforms and the environmental impact of billions of disposable plastic bags are issues that need addressing, however trivial they might seem to many. Setting aside comments like “Nick Clegg is twiddling his thumbs whilst his country burns”, my only complaint is that even when the Lib Dems are trying to be distinctive, their policies are feeble.

The solution to the environmental and ecological tragedy of our national addiction to plastic bags is not to impose a token charge on them. After all, what’s 50p on £80 worth of shopping? It’s going to change very few people’s behaviour. No, the solution is a total and outright ban. As on the Continent, that would encourage the use of cloth and canvass bags and save everybody money in a few shopping trips. If they want to end cosy deals between schools and uniform suppliers, they should do something somewhat stronger than advise them against it.

Fortunately for the journalists staying up at Glasgow, there were bigger questions being discussed, both publicly and behind closed doors. The most significant matter is how the Lib Dems would act if they hold the balance of power in a second hung parliament. What I find interesting about this is that the Lib Dem grassroots are becoming much less hostile to their Conservative peers just as the leadership of the party is not-so-subtlely reaching out to Labour. It feels like the political universe has been turned on its head when grassroots Lib Dems endorse nuclear power- utterly unthinkable since the party’s creation- whilst it is left to the party’s President to call for a Living Wage.

But don’t mistake this change for the Liberal Democrat leadership suddenly finding its heart. The process can be attributed to two factors:

1. The Left is weakened at grassroots level as members continue to resign in protest at their participation in Coalition.

2. The party has realised that they’ve no future if they spend 10 years in coalition with the Tories. They must reclaim the centre, and can only do so if they are seen as leaning towards the Tories.

The Labour Party should under no circumstances consider a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. There is no point in governing if by doing so we are rehabilitating the image of this band of two-faced opportunists who will corrode British politics with their stunning ability to betray their supporters with breathtaking moral superiority. The Lib Dems, for the sake of power, have stabbed the young, the disabled, students, workers, environmentalists, and fair minded people who trusted them to uphold progressive values in the back. The Lib Dems can choose further collaboration with the Tories, or they can spend a few election cycles renewing their ideology and leaders. But holding back the true Left is off limits.