Telling the LibDems to strike a pact with Labour may, as John Harris suggests, produce a marginally closer intersection of key policy positions.  Both are centre-left, broadly speaking (and we speaking very broadly).  Vince has been consistently to the Left of Darling throughout this financial crisis, for example.

But Harris knows why this is a very bad idea:

On the Lib Dem side, there’s an even more tortured silence – heightened by Clegg’s apparent openness to a Cameron ascendancy – and a very big fear: that to hint at both propping up Gordon Brown and toppling off the ideological high wire would lose them precious support in Tory-Lib Dem marginals.

As Danny Finkelstein observed in a blog I’ve just wasted 10 minutes looking for, voters tend to be spectacularly ignorant about the finer points of parties’ manifestos or their key positions.  In my view, all that focus-group sharpening of policy positions is overwhelmed – particularly at a time like this – by one binary choice: are you for or against the government?  And when most government ministers are unrecognisable, this boils down further: are you for or against Gordon Brown?

The next election is an epochal shall-we-throw-out-Brown election.  John Harris seems to have decided that tying the Liberal Democrats to his ankles as he’s chucked out of the balloon is wise policy.

Dave Osler seems to be ready to stoop to make this great sacrifice of his unimpeachable left wing credentials.  A timely reminder of the huge differences in the party’s DNA, when such selfimportant sentences as these spill out:

The historic significance  of Labourism rests in its partial expression of a clear desire for an independent working class voice in electoral politics in the opening decades of the twentieth century

The decades they are still stuck in to a great degree.


16 thoughts on “John Harris gives some really bad advice to the Liberal Democrats

  1. I suppose it all really depends on the conditions. It would be nice if the Lib-Dems forced a minority Labour government to repeal its anti-terror laws. But the substantial answers of the Libs if they ever got their hands on the levers of power would likely be little different from Labour: witness the recanting by Nick Clegg of things like the top-up fees motion at Lib Conference.

    But lest we forget, there have been several ‘informal’ Lib-Lab coalitions in the past – why should things be so different now if it means keeping the Tories out?

  2. I think there ought to be broad agreement between, I dunno, 60% of Labour and 60% of libdems. 20% of libdems would revolt because of libertarian instincts; good proportion of Labour for other reasons.

    But I am more worried about the electorate’s view. In 1997-2005, there was anti-Tory tactical voting. Surely no longer; now Gordon Brown, despite some useful work over the recession, has become the pole against which people are either repelled or attracted. Alliances will crystallize around that. From the LDs perspective, an alignment may aint them into a difficult corner.

    (personally I like tuition fees as a policy. One of the reasons I voted labour last election .. ..)

  3. Regardless of your personal preference for the policy, Clegg has demonstrated the willingness of his leadership to swing towards the Right, ignoring what members have mandated as policy for the election. I’m pointing to this because I suspect Clegg, Cable and rest would not be appreciably different from Labour despite whatever “left” credentials you think they have.

    People may vote based on whether they like or dislike Gordon Brown (though I disagree – on this basis, how does one distinguish between Libs and Tories? It’s an unnuanced way of predicting things at best) and the respective parties may or may not have things to say about what their leadership does. But Labour won’t be given a choice, and it’ll come down to whether or not Clegg wants a ministerial portfolio, or a chance to get some of his legislative agenda passed.

  4. “A Lib-Lab pact: deep down they know it makes sense”

    What a title! I would respectfully suggest that Mr Harris changes it to “A Lib-Lab pact: deep down the Lib Dems know it would be suicide”.

    I think there ought to be broad agreement between, I dunno, 60% of Labour and 60% of libdems. 20% of libdems would revolt because of libertarian instincts; good proportion of Labour for other reasons.

    Can I disagree here? I don’t think you’d find as many as 60% of Lib Dems willing to go into a pact/coalition with Labour. There are more than 20% of us who are repelled by the government’s policies, and many of those on the economic left of the party are also visceral opponents of working with Labour, for some reason. Just take Chris Huhne and David Howarth. (I suspect David’s reasons revolve around Labour’s complete tin ear when it comes to basic civil rights, in which case I’m right with him.)

  5. The Lib Dems have a very democratic style of leadership, whereby the FPC gets a huge amount of power over what Clegg etc can say. I don’t regard it as ideal, not if you need to be nimble and strike deals. I agree that my personal preference for that policy is not the point: but the ability to find difficult common ground during an unprecedented fiscal squeeze is. Pragmatism determines such moves.

    IMHO tuition fees are not right wing. They tend to redistrubute to the poor from the rich (see “Time’s Up”, on the right)

  6. Giles,

    Are loans the right lesson to learn? I thought that those from the least well-off households did not have to commit themselves to loans because grants/bursaries existed for them. However, I now learn otherwise.

    Some sample figures given out by York University:

    Fees £3,225
    Accommodation £3,280 for (33 weeks) or £3791 for 38 weeks
    Food and toiletries £1,766 or £2033
    Books and course costs £430
    Travel 0
    Insurance £65
    Laundry £215 or £247
    Social at 30wk ????? £990 or £1140
    Telephone at £9pw £297 or £342
    Total £10,268 or £11,273

    Full maintenance grant for household with less than £25,000 (gross taxable less pension and £1130 for each other child or eligible student) is £2906
    and bursary from university for same conditions is £1436

    Young people from least well off families with maximum aid must find for themselves (i.e. by loan) at least £5,926 for the 33 week option That is a loan of 23% or more of their parent’s household income. That must be frightening.

    Most students at York are working 12 hours a week to supplement their income. The type and hours of that work must detract from their performance.


  7. Political leaders seldom lead these days. They see themselves a ‘service’ seeking a market and employ the services of marketeers to guide them. Clegg and his market advisers decided that the market wanted change and that the market leader for change is Cameron.

    This is based on a view that the political market is dominated by a pendulum that only swings only from right to left and left to right.

    They therefore concluded that they must not allow themselves to portrayed as being ‘to the left’ of Cameron (or the rightward swinging pendulum) as this *will be* regarded as anti-change and implicitly pro-Labour.

    I have explained this in more detail here

    This explains the tax position sought by their leader at their conference in ’08 and his ‘savage cuts’ position at the ’09 conference.

    It is possible that these policies sit comfortably with Clegg’s inclination but this is probably not the case for Cable, especially in relation to the cuts positioning.

    Polling figures also show that Brown’s lack of popularity is a very significant factor. Back in the summer, something like 75% of respondents were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with him. Regard for Labour was much less negative.

    If the economic situation continues to be perceived as improving and electors’ fear of unemployment continues to fall, the Conservative lead will continue to dwindle. Negative attitudes to Brown would fade. Look at his November 08 ‘crisis management’ standing.

    If a ‘Time for a Change’ election narrative morphs into a ‘Hang on to Nurse for fear of something Worse’ election narrative, the Liberal Democrat Leadership will have bet on the wrong horse.

    It will have sacrificed the anti-Conservative tactical voter for the anti-Labour tactical voter. There are fewer of the latter than the former in marginal seats. It will have lost seats it need not have lost and failed to win seats (against Labour) that with these tactics it is privately counting on.

    The Federal Policy Committee may limit the Liberal Leader’s influence on the Manifesto but it is the new Parliamentary Party which will limit his freedom to manoeuvre if one of the other Party leaders should telephone in the circumstances of a House of Commons in which a single Party does not have a majority.

    In the event of a Balanced Parliament, that new Parliamentary Party is likely to have more MPs who owe their seat to anti-conservative tactical voters than anti-Labour tactical voters.

    But I wouldn’t spend much time waiting for a call if I was Clegg.

  8. Bill, you are describing maintenance, not tuition costs. The tuition fee policy would do nothing about them. And taxing all those people who fail to reach university standard in order to support students is still not egalitarian. I agree that students nowadays have a far more difficult time than my generation. But my generation was lucky. PUninshing the the underqualified for this is no way to proceed.

    I don’t think following the dictat of the FPC is leading, either.

    Nick didn’t say “savage cuts” because he likes it, or chose it. It is because he is forced to contemplate a situation where £100 bn of revenues that are relied upon to pay for services has disappeared. Why do people keep thinking this is some sort of choice, like whether to go on a diet? The only choices are about timing.

    I admire Brown in many ways, but have to agree to disagree on negative opinions of him. He will not be liked, full stop; and even if the recession ends, quality of life in 2010 will not leap upwards, like in the 1980s recovery, but will be joyless, like the 1990s.

    Future historians should praise his crisis management. Current voters won’t.

  9. First, those figures included tuition fees. If you put up tuition fees you will increase the amount that people from less well-off families have to contemplate borrowing before they decide to go into HE and in deciding which institution to attend. I cannot believe that parents and indivduals facing HE decisions care whether they are borrowing for fees or for maintenance – it is one loan and one huge loan for someone with a household income of, say £17k.
    I thought that less-well off people were covered by grants. My discovery is that they are not. The debts they have to contemplate are massive in comparison with the experience of the families and neighbourhoods they come from. People from less well off families are clearly being discouraged from going into HE and discouraged from attending the best institution for them if that institution requires moving from home. (Which is why people are building ‘universities’ in Burnley and Blackburn to name but two). As a ‘commonwealth’ it is to the good of all that people are able to attend the most appropriate institution regardless of background or wealth. This is clearly not happening. The system is petrifying inequalities. Wanting to break down these inequalities is not the same as promoting an egalitarian view.

    Secondly the political point is not to do with timing. You should know that I have always argued that it is about timing AND last September was the wrong time to implement or argue for extensive cuts, economically and politically. Back in September the threat of deflation and a long period of suppressed output was acute. Clegg made that statement with careful and considered forethought in pursuit of political tactics NOT economic prudence. It was done to position him/the Liberal Democrats on the same ground as the Conservatives (if not to their right) because of a political marketing strategy based on a belief that to do otherwise was to risk being regarded as against change and a political cousin of Labour. This is a naïve interpretation as change can go in many, many directions. Real leadership does not cringe or fawn or take its position from the position of others (either other parties or media preferences) it campaigns energetically for its own beliefs and values, fearlessly.

  10. Bill

    tuition fees are paid by the student loan company. The student’s family pays nothing. Then, after graduation, IF the student is earning enough, he starts paying it back. On 20k a year he might pay £450 annually, or £40 a month. Not bad for an education denied to the majority, and which is likely to end up earning him many tens of thousands over a lifetime.

    Debt specifically set aside for student tuition fees is more like equity than debt, in that it (a) does not attach to anything but the student’s earning ability (b) does not have obligations to repay until after graduation. I appreciate that maintenance payments during university time are different – but putting up tuition fees does not add to them.

    I understand that Sep was the wrong time to implement. But argue? Why should Nick not argue about what was going to happen in 2011 or 2012? To close his eyes to the inevitable would have looked immature. I would not guess at what he was thinking in terms of positioning. He was just being grown up. When you talk about your policies for the electoral term 2010-14, and you don’t include the small fact that you start that term with revenues 500bn, outgoings 700bn, you run the risk of proposing bold policies for fantasyland. And peoply might say “same old Lib Dems”.

    He was not taking his position from others, just from an ancient occult art called Arithmetic.

  11. The evidence shows no discernable change in the proportion of univ students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds since fees came in. It is easy to assert a belief about what one things the effect will be, but they have been around long enough for us to know the answer. When the facts are established, I change my mind, what do you do? (to misquote Keynes)

  12. Tim
    I’d be very happy to be educated by information. Please point me in the right direction. Does it also show that there has been no change in the distance from home of the institution selected by HE students? Do students from poorer backgrounds select local institutions?

    I also wonder whether decisions about taking on debt in 2009/10 will be diffferent than in, say, 2006/07.

    Giles I understand what the loans company does and I understand the repayment system. The parents I am mixing with do not appear to differentiate between borrowing from the loan company for fees or for maintenance. Nor do they differiate between a loan from that source and one from their bank. People have been paying off debt and deciding to forego new debt. Why can we be so sure that this kind of behaviour will not apply to student loans? I believe that the rate of interest this year was reduced to zero, but admissions staff are not able to say what the rate will be next year.

    I don’t think the household earning, say, £20,000 a year or experiencing third generation unemployment would understand that they were in effect buying some equity.

  13. I think if they are failing to differentiate between, say, credit card debts and those contracted under an income-contingent, time-limited and low intereset system, then the answer is education. We should not egg them on into thinking they are equivalent, for political reasons. Nick Barr did not spend such time thinking about the design of this system in order to fool them, and the advantages of the design are real.

    All we know is that since this system came in, kids with the same A level performance across the income distribution have been going for university in equal measure. Fortunately, they are not being put off. The problem is getting them to that level of achievement in the first place. The answer is more funds lower down in schooling.

    Unfortuantely, as Nick’s announcement today shows, it is he who shouts loudest – the student body -that wins, not the silent but vastly larger number failed in school many years earlier.

  14. I don’t know the answer to this, but is it really right to say that having a degree “is likely to end up earning [a student] many tens of thousands over a lifetime” ?

    I know that when c. 6% of the population went to university, that getting a degree on average led to much higher earnings, but is that still the case when c. 40% of a year group are graduates?

  15. I think its a cert – otherwise why is it such a great thing? We can’t have it both ways.

    I think the IFS has some data somewher e. . . .

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