Now the ‘new politics’ is dead, what is the point of the Lib Dems?

Here are some of the key pledges of Nick Clegg’s ‘new politics’ agenda which the party has dropped.

It is difficult to work out what the Liberal Democrats believe in. Just 3 per cent of voters are “very clear what they stand for” and only 23 per cent have even a “broad idea”.

It seems that any policy, including cast-iron pledges signed by every single Lib Dem MP, can be negotiated away to gain office.

However even as policy positions have fluctuated wildly, one principle has united the party and stands out as fixed: the ambition to create a ‘new politics’, backed up by a set of proposals to reform the political system.

So in Nick Clegg’s first major speech as deputy prime minster, he set out a series of specific reforms, declaring “the biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832”. It would not be “the odd gesture or gimmick to make you feel a bit more involved”, but would be nothing less than a “power revolution”.

Despite this stratospheric rhetoric, the ‘new politics’ agenda barely got off the ground. As the chance of implementing these changes dies out, all that remains is a disjointed, incoherent party, with policy positions so flexible that it can have practically any view on anything, depending on who it shares power with.

Here are some of the key pledges of Nick Clegg’s ‘new politics’ agenda, on one occasion blocked by the electorate, frequently frustrated by the Tories, and sometimes showing that Lib Dem action in government has failed to live up to their lofty rhetoric:

1)      Recall of MPs

The Lib Dems were quick to blame David Cameron for vetoing proposals allowing voters to recall corrupt MPs last week. However, their commitment to reform is unconvincing given the weakness of the measures they actually supported, a “combination of a stitch-up and a pretence of reform”, according to Tory MP Zac Goldsmith. Crucially, the new system would have left the decision of whether or not to allow recalls in the hands of a committee of MPs.

Abandoning one of the only remaining political reforms strikes a major blow to the ‘new politics’ agenda and will harm politics every time a scandal-hit MP clings on to their seat.

2)      Electoral reform

Despite the hype of both campaigns, the Alternative Vote referendum offered a bogus choice between a disproportionate ‘first past the post’ system and a similar majoritarian system that would be slightly more proportionate under certain circumstances, but even more unrepresentative in others circumstances.

Offered an artificial choice emerging out of coalition negotiations and compromises, voters stuck with the status quo and killed off any chance of the one reform that Lib Dems most crave.

3)      Lobbying

The ‘gagging bill’ passed earlier this year and backed by the Lib Dems was anti-liberal and anti-democratic, facing opposition from an extraordinarily broad alliance of individuals, charities, voluntary organisations and trade unions.

Although ostensibly designed to make democracy more transparent and open, groups such as 38 Degrees (which far more credibly represent a ‘new politics’) ran highly effective campaigns against parts of the bill that would do precisely the opposite and have a “chilling effect on democracy”.

The statutory register of lobbyists, one positive emerging from the bill, is very weak and will cover only a fraction of the lobbying industry, leaving the £2billion industry under-regulated and practically unreformed.

4)      House of Lords reform

House of Lords reform is probably at the very bottom of the list of priorities for most voters, allowing all parties to dither and fudge their way through the issue for over a century since the temporary, stop-gap 1911 Parliament Act.

Despite a clear commitment in the Coalition Agreement, backbench Conservative pressure meant that a central plank of the Lib Dems ‘new politics’ agenda was abandoned until at least the next Parliament.

5)      Party funding reform

Nick Clegg pledged to work towards party funding reform in his ‘new politics’ speech, since “as long as money plays such a big part in our politics, we are never going to end the tyranny of vested interest”. Negotiations between the main parties on party funding have been fruitless so far, but the transformation of the trade union link strengthens Labour’s position and could even revitalise talks.

Party funding is potentially the only remaining ‘new politics’ reform with an outside chance of success. Joining with Labour to put pressure on the Conservative’s shadowy paymasters- over half of Conservative funding comes from the City – is perhaps the Lib Dem’s last opportunity to rescue the ‘new politics’ agenda and contribute to a genuinely radical reform.

3 Responses to “Now the ‘new politics’ is dead, what is the point of the Lib Dems?”

  1. robertcp

    The ‘new politics’ has been very unsuccessful since 2010 but there might be a comeback if there is another hung parliament in 2015.

  2. ffhfhffh

    Lords reform and party funding reform were both blocked by Labour colluding with the Tories for some short term political gain.

    If Labour fail to get a majority after 2015 and need the Lib Dems for a coalition or confidence and supply, I suspect we’ll see a bit more progress on both those fronts.

    Labour blocking Lords reform was mostly to just stop the coalition claiming credit, so I’m sure they would quite happily agree to it as a Lib Dem demand in any future negotiations. And Falkirk has happened since they blocked party funding reform, meaning it would mostly just harm the Tories to go ahead with it now.

    However, when it comes to the voting system, I doubt we’d see a change to a proportional system without the unlikely event of a majority Lib Dem government. Maybe the Lib Dems could negotiate PR in local elections like they managed to do in Scotland?

  3. aremaitch

    I think Steve Donlan is right to point out that neither of the voting reform choices were very attractive. We shouldn’t assume the British people will vote against an even half decent reform proposal.

Leave a Reply