Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

100 days of Coalition

We’re past the 100-day mark of Coalition Government in the UK, and the universe hasn’t yet imploded. Lib Dems support may have, but the universe appears to be fine.

How is the public coping? Jonathan Freedland at The Guardian notes that:

The most striking change is the fading of novelty. This is not to be confused with the end of the coalition’s honeymoon, which – if lukewarm approval ratings are any guide – has also come astonishingly fast. It is instead the speed with which a political arrangement once confined to the dreams of nerdish games of fantasy politics, has become entirely unremarkable. There was some gasping at the “firsts”: Lib Dems strolling up Downing Street for their first cabinet meeting since 1945; Vince Cable clambering into a ministerial car; Lib Dems sitting alongside Tories on the government benches; Clegg deputising at prime minister’s questions. But after each first time, the second lost its frisson. Now the sight of Chris Huhne at the dispatch box is no more unexpected than the sight of, say, Jeremy Hunt: they’re just the government. Coalition politics is the new normal.

It’s something I’d like to shout out to any of the doom-mongers in Canada who hyperventilate with fear at the prospect of coalition government.

Indeed, there are good reasons why Canadian coalition could work even more smoothly than in Britain. Big caveats being that Canadians are more party-tribal than Brits, more cautious regarding electoral reform – and of course Canadians tend to view the big sovereigntist party in Parliament as not only intellectually distasteful, but as thoroughly immoral. The British don’t take the same emotional view of Scottish nationalists, so Canada has a bigger problem in terms of which parties would be deemed acceptable coalition partners.

Canada’s advantage, though, is that its Tories have already ruled themselves out of any potential coalition arrangement – they’ve slandered and smeared the very concept as impure, borderline criminal, unworkable and illegitimate. As he reminds us quite literally ad nauseum, Harper doesn’t do partnership. This means that the risk of a coalition with an ideological chasm embedded within it is unikely. The Liberals and the NDP, the only real Canadian coalition possibility, share an ideological compatibility that the UK’s Tories and Lib Dems aren’t supposed to enjoy.

“Supposed to” being the operative phrase there. The rifts and the faults that are emerging are not between the Tories and the Lib Dems – it’s within the Lib Dems themselves. The question is no longer existential and unimportant – What is their identity? Are they social democrats or are they liberals, finally? What does an alloy look like, and is that what we have? Joining government, and especially at a time of huge economic pain, forces this jagged question right through the heart of the party and through its base.

Cuts to public finances are deep and severe. They don’t offend the Tory base too much – Cameron’s voters are largely wealthy, and don’t tend to sympathise too much with those who aren’t. The Lib Dems base, though, is disproportionately young, less wealthy, and views itself as fiercely (if ambiguously) anti-establishment. So being the establishment was always going to feel uncomfortable.

Couple that with competing visions of what the party even is. Two observations this morning from Lib Dems Deputy Simon Hughes, and Leader Nick Clegg:

On Clegg:

8.29am: Not a very revealing performance by Clegg on the Today programme. He painted a picture of perfect harmony within the coalition, refusing to identify any subject on which the Tories and Lib Dems disagreed. Perhaps, given the Conservatives’ positive poll rating, he sees aligning the Lib Dems as closely as possible with the Tories as the way to revive his own party’s flagging poll ratings?

On Hughes:

Hughes wants a veto: “If you want a coalition to deliver the vote then you have to make sure everybody has bought into that,” he said. “It’s a matter of practical politics, the answer is therefore: yes, the parliamentary party, on behalf of the wider party, on big issues has to say, ‘No, we can’t go down this road.'”

and

“The idea of a centre left, of a progressive liberal Britain, is still very much for me what I am here to achieve,” said Hughes, who took over from Vincent Cable as deputy leader in June and has since become a lightning rod for Lib Dems discontented with the coalition. “Who knows, there may be a coalition with a Labour party if they are progressive at the next election, after the next election or sometime in the future. It’s on the agenda.”

So, on the same morning, this 100th anniversary, we see opposite tacks at the highest levels of the party: the social democrat who openly covets partnership with Labour, and the neo-liberal who simply cannot identify a single area of dispute with Conservatives. The ambitious social democrat who thinks the Lib Dems could punch above their weight, despite having just 1/6 the seats of the Tories – and the relaxed neo-liberal who is easily resolved to having got a few ideas in the joint manifesto, and is happy to cruise from here on in.

I don’t want the Lib Dem’s party conference this autumn to be an acrimonious dog-pit. But the odds are looking pretty good that it will be. With the unresolved wings of the Lib Dems flapping in different directions, the battle for unity of purpose lies within the Lib Dem tent, not between it and its Tory partners.

I voted Lib Dem, and I for one am not outraged at the Coalition’s performance so far. I know to place my outrage towards the senior partner where their policies seem short-sighted, careless, amaterurish, meanspirited. We do have to accept that it’s a Conservative government at heart – they’ve got the portfolios and they’ve got the bulk of seats. So while I share Simon Hughes idealism and would prefer the party better reflected his outlook, I also share Clegg’s degree of realpolitik around what the party can do with barely 50 seats. Here’s hoping they can unify around a strategy, that’s pragmatic and still distinct, to boost that seat count in future, not see it abolished through splittist infighting.

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