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Commentary 350 – January 2012
14 December 2011 (22:56:20)


We all know what the Liberal Democrat script was supposed be at the next general election.

It would have said that the country had been through some painful years of spending cuts and unemployment – all made less painful by virtue of Liberal Democrat participation in the government – but now, in 2015, the recovery was obvious. It had been a price worth paying. Onwards and upwards.

That scenario was shot to pieces by the government’s Autumn Statement, which admitted the economy would not now recover by 2015, and nor would spending cuts have ended.

The Liberal Democrats now face fighting a general election in which they must tell voters that they have been through several years of pain for no reward they can see, and face more to come. This is hardly the background against which anyone would want to fight a general election.

The Autumn Statement in effect admitted that ‘Plan A’ has not worked, and that the deficit will not be gone by 2015.

‘Plan B’ has offered some extra spending on infrastructure but, welcome as that is, it will not by itself solve the basic problem of lack of demand in the economy.

Nor will coalition ministers endlessly banging on about how poor the economy’s prospects are. Every time they warn of hard times to come, another consumer decides to postpone spending, and another business postpones investment.

One approach would be to channel money to those most likely to spend it, which makes doubly offensive the Autumn Statement’s penalising of the poorest, as exemplified by the Institute of Fiscal Studies finding that failure to index some tax credits, and the reversal of real terms increases to child tax credits “will leave some poorer families worse off and will lead to an increase in measured child poverty”.

This is wrong politically, as it makes a mockery of coalition claims that “we are all in this together”. It is also wrong economically; those with the least money are the most inclined to spend what they have, and taking money from them (or not giving it to them) directly hits demand.

The admission that things will still be grim in 2015 is also a danger to the coalition itself. It was always most likely to come apart if and when a majority of Liberal Democrat MPs believed that they were more likely to save their seats outside it than inside. The Autumn Statement will not have increased the latter’s ranks.


The Federal Executive’s decision to have a ‘strong presumption’ against fielding Liberal Democrat candidates in police commissioner elections is an act of political lunacy unparalleled since the swiftly-reversed decision 23 years ago to call the party ‘the Democrats’.

It is also an act of political cowardice that has no parallel in party history. Is this really the party that was prepared to stand up for civil liberty throughout the New Labour years, but which now has nothing to say on how voters are policed or on how the police behave?

A variety of excuses, all of them pathetic, have been advanced. Chief among these is that the party does not think policing should be a matter of party politics.

At the last general election, the Liberal Democrat manifesto said the party would “give local people a real say over their police force through the direct election of police authorities”. Would the party really have created those, only not to contest them?

In any event, who on earth does the Federal Executive think supervises the police now if not police authorities, most whose members are local politicians, some of them Liberal Democrats?

Another excuse advanced is that the party does not have the money centrally to fight these elections. So what? There is no reason why central funding should be available for local or regional elections (or at least not for places judged non-target).

Why not allow those localities and regions that feel they do have the resources to run candidates if they choose, rather than impede them?

There are two unavoidable conclusions from this. The first is that the party knows its policies on crime and crime reduction are neither simplistic nor populist, and is scared to defend them in public. Liberal arguments will simply go unheard.

The other is that, faced with massive constituencies in which it is impossible to deluge voters with paper, the party has no idea what to do, and so has resolved to do nothing.

As Bath and North East Somerset Council leader Paul Crossley argues in this issue, these elections should have been a golden opportunity to find and test some new campaign techniques. Instead, the Liberal Democrats will cede these elections to other parties, to independents of questionable political outlooks, and at worst to assorted vengeful buffoons.

And in future elections, it will remain a leaflet delivering cult, having shunned the chance to try something new and learn from it.

Those who voted for the ‘strong presumption’ should be ashamed.

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