This morning Which reports that 1 in 5 households are having to borrow to pay for food. Certainly in my lifetime that is unprecedented. One wonders how bad it has to get before someone says “thus far and no further” – 2 in 5, 4 in 5? And at a time when these people are being urged to literally pull in their belts because we are “all in this together” the Sunday Times Rich List tells another story – a story of where exactly all the wealth is going – a story of the rich getting richer in contrast to the poor getting poorer. And we as a party are saying this is a price worth paying.
For me the lesson of our disastrous result in South Shields and disappointing local election results is one of the chickens coming home to roost. To the electorate, the party that once appeared to have some principles, the party that once spoke up for the poor, oppressed, ignored and despised has become indistinguishable from the Tories. The party that could be relied upon to fight for civil liberties and human rights has become the party to support secret courts. How often, listening to various of our cabinet ministers, I reflect that they sound more Tory than the Tories.
We’ve had three years trying to square the circle of being a party with social liberal values attempting to justify our complicity in a government clearly bent on using the economic crisis to implement its deeply divisive ideology – is it any wonder our erstwhile supporters have lost faith?
I took part in a Compass debate on the Lessons from Thatcher a couple of weeks ago and during my speech quoted from the preamble to our constitution – “The Lib Dems exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” – I was sitting next to Lisa Nandy MP at the time, who was genuinely surprised. It is becoming increasingly difficult to continue to claim we have such values when our leadership is seen to be betraying those values at every turn.
Three years ago we debated going into coalition – as Nick Clegg observed at the time – it was a bit like a North Korean rally. Only four of us spoke against in a four hour debate. Nearly everyone was prepared to give it a chance, the euphoria was palpable. At last, power, an opportunity to put Lib Dem policies into practice – what’s not to like? But, power at the expense of your integrity is surely a step too far? If we lose our integrity do we not lose our soul?
It is telling that since that special conference, despite the overwhelming support for the Coalition expressed in the hall at the time, we have lost 25% of our members. Initially they would have been mainly from the social liberal left of the party – but as the leadership seems intent on alienating all sections of the party – many more from the right are also finding it impossible to stay in a party that says one thing and does another. Yes it’s great that we have taken so many out of tax, yes I thoroughly approve of the Pupil Premium – but when we agreed these policies it wasn’t at the expense of the most vulnerable in society. We wouldn’t justify taking away the crutches from someone with two broken legs in order to give them to someone with a limp – and yet this is what we appear to be doing. The not quite so badly off are being helped a little at the expense of those worse off than themselves. And yes, the Pupil Premium, with greater accountability, has the potential to support many children. But for anyone’s education the most important pre-requisites are a stable and safe home, space at home to study and food in the belly. So evicting families and making them so poor they can’t afford to eat, more than negates any potential gain from the Pupil Premium.
I have made no secret of my opposition to the Coalition. It’s no good saying this is “grown up politics” and “being in coalition means compromise”. Yes it does, but even compromise has to occur in line with one’s values. If I were a vegetarian I may compromise with my partner on the colour of our sofa, but it wouldn’t be leather!