‘You know where you are with a Tory’ is a phrase I often hear in Newcastle. Admittedly we don’t have many of them here in the North East, but the phrase tells you as much about our main opponents – the Lib Dems – as it does about the Tories. The Tories, regardless of your opinion on them, have a clear ideology which is different to Labour’s. But the Lib Dems have become known here as the ‘slippery’ party.
Having ‘many faces’ has been a source of Lib Dem success and is now at the heart of their crisis. Labour lost control of the City Council to the Lib Dems in 2004 on the back of both local and national issues, where in both instances Labour were seen to be out of touch. They soaked up an anti-Labour vote from both Conservative and Labour supporters and as such set about trying to please both sets of voters. They often selected candidates who were prominent local people involved in community campaigns, attracted with the call ‘don’t worry, you don’t have to be political to be a Lib Dem councillor’.
So today the Lib Dems find themselves a curious collection of those on the right, those on the left, and a not insignificant number of ‘swing politicians’ who would identify as ‘none of the above’. There are a number of reasons why this is recipe for an implosion.
Firstly, as a loose collection of people it is difficult by definition to stick together. While we haven’t seen as many high profile public defections and denouncements in Newcastle as elsewhere, they Lib Dems did lose two of their ranks who became independents and a number who have chosen not to stand again. Many of their activists, who were motivated to get involved by a sense of “non-politics”, have now hung up their leafletting bags.
Secondly, this loose association of people makes the Lib Dems ill-suited to actually be in charge and make tough decisions. We know from the Council we inherited that they avoided any decisions where there would be a public backlash, and have left us a series of even tougher challenges to deal with as we try to deal with Government cuts. “I only want to take decisions that will make people happy” was a phrase often attributed to one of the Lib Dem council leaders in Newcastle.
Thirdly, they have now lost their ‘clean hands’ as their fingerprints can be found all over a budget that takes from the poor to give to the rich. They are no longer the ‘good’ alternative, the ‘voice of conscience’ in British politics. They have allowed themselves to be defined as a right wing apologist party, and as a result people disillusioned with mainstream parties will find other alternatives such as independents, extremists or just not vote at all. In this respect the Lib Dem betrayal of the electorate over issues such as tuition fees has done mainstream, stable politics as a whole a great disservice.
Fourthly, their time in Government is exposing their shameless approach to campaigning. Harriet Harman has rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of Lib Dems campaigning against things they have agreed to in Government. In Newcastle we have observed them claiming credit for Government achievements but distancing themselves from unpopular decisions – in one leaflet trumpeting the Pupil Premium and raising of the income tax threshold, in the next one saying “local elections are ONLY about LOCAL issues”. I remember a lot of Lib Dem leaflets in 2004 / 5 making Iraq the deciding factor of the election, and leaflets in 2008 / 9 saying “don’t vote for Brown’s candidate here”, so for Labour what’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander (and we’re not nearly as good as exposing Lib Dem hypocrisy as we should be). On occasion it might be right for local parties to take a different line from their party nationally, but when people at the Cabinet table do it – with Vince Cable the master of this new dark art – it undermines the principle of collective responsibility.
Fifthly, for us that dance is being played out locally where we have local Lib Dems involved with the Coalition. Lord Shipley is probably the most respected Lib Dem politician in the City. I have never heard a word said against him. His leadership of the Council was statesmanlike and he is well regarded across the public, voluntary and private sectors. However, the newly appointed Government advisor Lord Shipley has voted in the Lords to cut Legal Aid, taking much needed help from the residents of this City. He has backed controversial plans for welfare reform and voted to dismantle our NHS. He said confidently three years ago that he could see no reason why Newcastle needed an elected mayor, but is now a leading voice in the ‘yes’ campaign. It is distressing to see such a well-respected politician shred his credibility and reputation, and for what? To be an unpaid adviser to a Government he doesn’t believe in.
Sixthly, at least some of the Lib Dems believe in this coalition and what it is doing. So called ‘Orange Book’ Liberals have plotted for years to privatise the NHS and introduce a system of private insurance. Those Lib Dems – of which we have a few in Newcastle – will be cheered by what this Coalition is up to: privatising our NHS, police and schools. Not so cheered by these developments are the voters who thought the Lib Dems were on their side.
The challenge is now for Labour to do more than simply wait for the Lib Dems’ own problems to work in our favour. We cannot just take solace in the (all too familiar) crashing poll ratings of the Lib Dems. We must offer our own positive, progressive alternative.
We are fighting these local elections street by street across Newcastle, based on our record over the past year and the pledges that we’re making for the years ahead – such as introducing a replacement for EMA, paying a Living Wage to Council employees, freezing Council Tax and building new Council houses. We have a manifesto, developed by our Group, which meets the challenges our city faces head-on. We know what we want to do, and why we want to do it – above all it’s about creating a fairer, more just society. And people know that’s what Labour stands for.
Nick Forbes is Leader of Newcastle City Council