Monday, 20 September 2010

Did Clegg sell out for power?

Amid the chaos and wall-to-wall coverage of the Papal state visit over the past few days it might have been easy to miss the news that the Liberal Democrat party conference has kicked off in Liverpool. This is a shame, for it promises to be one of the more turbulent Lib Dem meetings in recent years.

The simple reason why, of course, is the coalition government, and more specifically Nick Clegg's choice to enter into partnership with a political party that he actively campaigned against during the general election. The Deputy Prime Minister is already set to placate angry party members in a speech to be given later this week.

And placate them he must. There have been overt voices of disapproval over the perceived compromises the party has had to make ever since it became a governing party for the first time in 65 years, and several councillors have already defected in protest. Perhaps even more disturbing for those in attendance is that the usual rule of motions passed at conference automatically becoming party policy will be ignored if they clash with the coalition deal. The claim from certain quarters of "Vote Lib Dem, get Tory" has never rung more true.

Those that support the coalition argue that for a party almost certainly condemned to sit in opposition for eternity the opportunity to take part in government was one not to be passed, however unpalatable that proposition might initially be. Having Liberal Democrats in the cabinet, so the argument goes, will act as a check on the worst of Tory excesses and will allow some of their own policies to be considered. The proposed AV referendum - which the Conservatives oppose - is a good case in point. So have the compromises been worth it?

Chief among the issues that Clegg is now having to justify to the party faithful is the coalition's programme of spending cuts, which many believe go too far even with the application of the vaunted Lib Dem brake. There was the rise in VAT which hitherto had been described as a "bombshell", the abolition of the UK Film Council and the Building Schools for the Future programme, the cancellation of other building projects including hospitals, and cuts across the public sector that have already attracted the ire of the unions and which could create another Winter of Discontent. There are also upcoming matters such as free schools which threaten to create even more division.

It has to be said that thus far the coalition partners seem to be getting on rather amicably, despite the disquiet among the grassroots. Until another general election - and until we can more accurately assess the consequences of the assault on the public sector - it may be hard to tell just how support for the Lib Dems will be effected by their spell in government. It's fair to say that many people would have voted for Clegg's party on their platform of opposing Tory cuts; that they now see that same party collude in these very same cuts could well result in punishment at the ballot box. It's a gamble which will either make or break the Liberal Democrats as we know them.

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