Thursday, September 23, 2010

Clegg has pushed his party closer to political slaughter.

Reading the tabloid reaction to Vince Cable's observation that markets are often rigged and that capitalism "kills competition where it can", one would be forgiven for thinking that he has said something outrageous.

The Liberal Democrat business secretary, declared the Sun, had launched a "vicious attack on the free market". This was an "all-out assault on capitalism", the Daily Mail warned. The Federation of Small Businesses demanded an instant apology. Was an anti-capitalist business secretary actually possible, one BBC presenter wondered.
Of course, like Clegg's speech the other day, Cable's speech had also been cleared by Cameron's office, but the adoration of the market is so widespread amongst the press that they appear to forget that it was Ted Heath who once spoke of "the unacceptable face of capitalism". Nowadays, despite the recent almost total collapse of the market, any criticism of how capitalism is conducted is considered heresy.

I liked what Cable had to say, as did the Liberal Democrat base, and I welcomed his insistence that this government would not stand idly by whilst bankers awarded themselves bonuses whilst the rest of the nation faced cuts of between 25 and 40% to most public services.

However, Seamus Milne reminds us this morning that Osborne has let it be known there will be no new bonus tax or increased bank levy. So Cable is merely throwing scraps to the left to keep us happy, and this coalitions inexorable drift to the right will continue with the full support of Nick Clegg.

Both David Cameron and Clegg know they need to be pacified, as the public will be when it sees bankers piling up billions in new bonuses just as the cuts start to bite deep – and Vince is the man for the job.

But this is strictly for the gallery.

The events of the past few days have driven home that the Liberal Democrats are now in the hands of a very different kind of leadership from those they've had in the past. As their overwhelming rejection of Michael Gove's academies and free schools showed, most of the party's activists remain firmly on the centre-left. But Clegg and his closest allies are somewhere else entirely – and will ignore them.

With his mini-me panegyric to Cameron, his declaration that the state should not "compensate the poor for their predicament", his attempt to redefine social justice as equality "between the generations", and his insistence that the "vocation of Liberalism is not to be a leftwing ghetto", Clegg's message could not be clearer. The Lib Dem leadership has turned its back on a whole spectrum of opinion, both inside and outside the party. For all Cable's efforts, the traditions of Lloyd George and Beveridge and the party's social democratic strand have been decisively marginalised.

Of course, the rightward turn long predates the general election aftermath, which Lib Dem leaders insist gave them no choice but to join a Tory coalition. Clegg and his market-orientated Orange Book friends had been steering the party in this direction for the previous couple of years. That paved the way for a meeting of coalition minds – as did the Lib Dem team that prepared the negotiating options for Clegg in the six months before the election.

The result is that, beyond the cause of civil liberties, the Liberal Democrat leader is now following Tony Blair and Cameron in attempting to define himself against his own party.

I think Milne makes a very serious point there. Clegg is insisting that his party hold together "for the sake of the coalition", but his every utterance puts him - with the exception of his statements on civil liberties - on the right of the political spectrum.

Clegg won't mind for a second Cable feeding this kind of red meat to the conference. Indeed, it suits his purposes perfectly for Cable to play to the gallery and give them the kind of left wing rhetoric which appeals to their sense of social fairness, and their collective outrage at the behaviour of the banking community.

And, all the while, Clegg continues to drag his party ever more towards the right, stating that There Is No Alternative.

Indeed, the kind of statements which Clegg has been making of late - "The Lib Dems never were and aren't a receptacle for leftwing dissatisfaction with Labour" - seems a tacit admission that the Liberal Democrat left wing voters have deserted his party, possibly for good.

But for the Liberal Democrats, the prospects look grim. It's hard to see why voters should reward them – as Clegg's right-hand man, Danny Alexander, argues – for sticking to what is a Conservative course. Clegg pleaded with his troops this week to imagine a sunlit future after five years of coalition government, and promised the Lib Dems' independence would be protected. But whether the party is actually in one piece by then, or Clegg still their leader, seems very far from certain.

Eventually the Lib Dems will realise where Clegg has taken them. At that point, Clegg will have to go, or the Lib Dems will fracture. Because he has taken them on a suicidal course.

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