Tom Copley says the Lib Dems are too soft for the hard budget

Today’s budget was a typically Tory affair. Fresh from wielding the axe, George Osborne sat down to ecstatic cheers from Tory backbenchers delighted at his assault on the state.  The Lib Dem response was somewhat more muted. According to the Guardian, only one of their 37 backbenchers waved his order paper in approval.

Amongst the Lib Dem membership I imagine the response was even frostier. Lib Dem federal executive member, Richard Grayson, writes on Comment is Free that his party’s leadership has “abandoned the party’s centre left roots”. He is wrong – they have no roots to abandon.

It is true that the old Liberal party had a strong history of social liberalism and a desire to defend and extend civil liberties, both regarded as centre-left positions. But economically speaking they have no “centre-left” roots. The old Liberals had no base in the working class or organised labour, and the Social Democratic party with which they merged rejected that base when they split from Labour.

Even before the coalition agreement with the Tories, the Lib Dems’ policy towards organised labour and workers’ rights was driven by a deep-seated suspicion of the unions and a centre-right view of labour relations. Before the general election, Vince Cable (incorrectly regarded by many as on the left of the party) called openly for strikes to be banned in essential public services, which he somehow managed to extend to British Airways, and for the repeal of the EU social chapter. Going back a bit further, it is not widely remembered that the Lib Dems voted against the minimum wage, calling it a “gimmick”. That’s not something they shout about these days.

The right of the Lib Dems has been in the ascendancy for many years. The left of the Parliamentary party has been reduced to a small rump of MPs like Charles Kennedy and Simon Hughes. These once important figures have been replaced by the likes of Nick Clegg and David Laws, who would have joined the Conservative Party in the 1990s had it been more socially liberal.

The truth is that the Lib Dems are ruthlessly opportunist. No party in history has exploited the luxury of opposition as effectively as they have. They could be all things to all people – pretending to bat to the left of Labour nationally while pandering to their predominantly well-off, middle class electorate locally. Indeed, in their leaked campaign manual written by the former leader of the Islington Lib Dems, their activists are explicitly told to tack to the left in Labour areas and to the right in Tory areas. And, of course, as the third party with reduced media scrutiny they could get away with it.

But not any more. Going from opposition to government can often be a traumatic experience, particularly for MPs who have grown comfortable with opposition. When the late Michael Foot eventually became a minister after many years as an oppositionist backbencher he found the constraints of government rather troubling. Barbara Castle said of him in frustration that “the trouble with Mike is that he has grown soft on a diet of soft options because he’s never had to choose”.

That is exactly the position that the Lib Dems now find themselves in. But because they have no real centre-left roots, their MPs will, with very few exceptions, walk through the division lobbies with the Tories and vote for a devastating budget despite any nagging concerns they may have.

Today may well be the day the Lib Dems realise the full consequences of the pact that they have entered into, and the damage it could wreak on their future electoral chances.  For years they have managed a clever but precarious balancing act. They have been all things to all people – left where it suits them,  right where it suits them. But now they have had to choose. Power may well turn out to be their downfall.

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2 Responses to “Tom Copley says the Lib Dems are too soft for the hard budget”

  1. […] “Lib Dem’s have no principles or any roots, especially not in the centre left cos they don&#8…r.” […]

  2. Richard Grayson says:

    “Richard Grayson, writes on Comment is Free that his party’s leadership has “abandoned the party’s centre left roots”. He is wrong – they have no roots to abandon”.

    Tom – glad to see my piece was read beyond LD circles, though I’m afraid I only just found your comment. I want to say though that I don’t see how you can sustain an argument that the LDs have no centre-left roots. In the first place, I’d simply cite Hobhouse, Keynes and Beveridge, the last two of whom were cited by Ed Miliband in his first leader’s speech at Labour conference as being influences on him. More widely, you seem to take ‘centre-left’as being very narrowly defined as far as the economy is concerned when you dismiss LD centre-left credentials by saying that we have ‘no base in the working class or organised labour’. The ‘working class’ has long ceased to vote cohesively. Indeed, simply having a base in the w-c does not by definition mean you are on the centre-left (Thatcher being an example). The LDs continue to win hundreds of thousands if not millions of working-class votes. Going back much further, the old Liberal Party was strongly supported by many unions. Meanwhile, it was the Liberal Party which advocated co-operative ownership and more power for workers throughout the 1950s to 1970s. I think you ned to be careful about writing us all off.

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