It has taken a while for George Osborne’s autumn statement to be been felt throughout the party and the potential consequences. We have always campaigned on being an independent party and we have fought to show we are independent from the Tories only to blow this out of the water by effectively saying that we have the same fiscal policy as the Tories. The worrying this about this is not that there may be no alternative when it comes to managing the country’s finances, it is that we are starting to look and sound similar to the Tories. It is starting to look like they are getting dangerously close to one another and forgetting where they came from.
Stephen Tall summed up the questions following Osborne’s autumn statement and the subsequent Danny Alexander interview as this:
When Danny Alexander was asked on Newsnight on Tuesday if the Liberal Democrats would go into the next election promising nearly £30bn more austerity, he replied: “I’m afraid so.” So where does this leave the party? Have we now signed-up by default to fighting the next election on a platform of more cuts until 2017? If so, does this in effect commit the Coalition parties to fighting on a united programme?
There is something deeply concerning for the Lib Dems if we are to fight the next election on a united front in relation to the economy with the Tories. An independent party without an independent policy on the economy when it will be the most important issue? How has it come about that that has even been suggested? Many in the party have been calling this proposal foolish but we should look at this a little more closely as there is more to it than meets the eye.
The Lib Dems have spent years building up our independent voice and influencing other parties policies. Clegg’s meeting with the Governor of the Bank of England in May 2010 changed that and we ended up those at the top of the party supporting the Tory economic policy despite having campaigned against it. Why Clegg changed his mind is open to debate for many.
As time has gone on those at the top of the Lib Dem party have had to implement the policies they campaigned against but came to believe were necessary. The months and months of hard work, explaining, convincing, and campaigning all lead to one place – certainty. Key actors feel a strong personal sense of responsibility and emotional attachment to a project/policy and end up being crucial to its implementation. Alexander has been part of the Treasury for a while now and is therefore surrounded by people (civil servants and other politicians) who are concerned about the same issues, have the same information and have to come up with a plan to get out of the problems we have. They agreed on how to do it so the only debate comes with the detail but they are still all on the same page. It makes perfect sense for him to end up suggesting that the Tories and the Lib Dems should have the same economic policy. The problem is that as someone from a different party he needs to have some mechanism to protect himself from this merging of ideas and ideals.
This leads to a bigger problem. Some of the most disastrous political projects of the last 20 years have been due to the civil service. An unelected body of individuals divorced from the reality of the projects they are tasked to oversee and are often prone to influence from lobbyists – no matter how inappropriate the project. For a classic example of this see the millions and millions of pounds wasted on top of the child deaths as a result of a policy they were told was not going to work in the first place, only to go on a 20 year project to implement them anyway because they had been persuaded by the IT lobby it was a good idea. It wasn’t and we are now having to break this up. But when in Government you are surrounded by these people who convince new Ministers certain things are a good idea. That is why they become out of touch with the public.
In a Coalition, the two parties are collaborating and ideas will converge eventually. We are living in dire economic times and politicians are getting their advice from those who are considered to be in the know. The problem is that no one is in the know. Mervyn King has got things wrong on so many occasions it is a surprise anyone is still listening to him, but they are and he managed to convince Clegg the Lib Dems should change our fully costed and carefully put together economic plan. What the civil service wants are people who are good at managing the brief well and not causing too much trouble in how things run. This is known as a technocrat and as Ministers listen to civil servants a result is that they end up acting and sounding like technocrats.
Technocrats are experts who are a highly skilled elite group. They may be able to manage things well in the eyes of civil servants and the markets, but they are divorced from the realities of people in the country. Some people may respect a technocrat and even feel the country is in safe hands. But no one will vote for a technocrat. They have no emotional tie to them. Acting and sounding like one is a very bad move.
Have a listen to Danny Alexander explaining the 2011 Budget ‘priorities’ and it just feels like a technocrat explaining why they have done what they have done. Values are almost an add on, and in many ways retrospective as it was something agreed they had to implement. It doesn’t leave you with a sense that he believes in fairness, or liberalism, or social justice. It leaves you with a sense that he is a Government Minister. You could almost imagine George Osborne saying the same thing – he even uses the word fairness when talking about the measures being taken.
Have a listen to other Lib Dem ministers and see what you think. Lib Dem ministers need to find a buffer for the problems faced with being in Government – namely staying true to who we are. They should not surround themselves with civil servants and other government ministers for longer than necessary. They should not make friends with them either, no matter how tempting this may be, it is dangerous when in a position of such power. They should continually ask how it fits with the values of the Lib Dems and where it doesn’t fit be prepared to say so. They should keep in mind that power corrupts and ask themselves if their thinking is being corrupted. Most importantly, they should be coming back to the party and asking them what we should be doing in the future in the knowledge that their thinking has been tainted by the position they have been in – not making commitments that are not theirs to make. No one knows what the economy will be like in 2015 and we certainly should not be fighting on the same platform as the Tories. If this coalition has taught us anything, it is surely that throwing ourselves in with the Tories has not been a move that will gain us votes. Perhaps the next thing this Coalition will teach us is that Lib Dem politicians are also prone to being influenced by the positions they hold. The difference between a Lib Dem Minister and others is that they should know how to mitigate this effect, not pander to it.