Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

This dysfunctional marriage will last the course

Kevin Meagher on the LibDems deadly embrace

The marriage of the Nasty and Nice parties to form the ConDem government has been written off as an unworkable union, destined to hit the rocks. Like many a dysfunctional coupling both parties lose if it breaks up and somehow they manage to keep together for fear of something worse.

In making sense of the general election's mixed verdict, where they wielded the balance of power, the LibDems had essentially four options. First, they could have come to an arrangement with Labour and the minority parties, who, with the exception of those charmers in the Democratic Unionists, are all basically social democratic. To be fair, even the dour Ulstermen of the DUP dislike the Tories.

Their second option was to allow the Conservatives to form a minority government and offer support on a 'confidence and supply' basis - promising to vote for the Queen's Speech and extracting concessions from a weakened Conservative administration.

Thirdly, they could have sat on their hands and done no deals, which would have helped precipitate a second election later this year in the hope of either of the main parties obtaining a clearer mandate from the electorate.

The fourth - and hitherto least likely option - was to go into formal alliance with the Conservatives. Given the contrariness of the LibDems and their social democratic heritage, this was always a longshot. The balance of power in the party has undeniably shifted to the ambitious 'Orange Book' neo-liberals clustered around Nick Clegg. In contrast, hopping into bed with the Tories would have been inconceivable under Ashdown, Kennedy or Ming Campbell.

As history shows, the soft leather of a ministerial limo, some sweet-talking about electoral reform and a bouquet of ministerial posts were enough to get Nick Clegg and his ultra ambitious bridesmaids up the aisle. Not everyone is toasting the happy union. Those LibDems left out in the cold will realise only too quickly that their party is now extremely vulnerable. As Nick Clegg was swept back into parliament in his own Sheffield Hallam constituency, the LibDems very nearly lost control of their flagship Sheffield City Council.

Given that their core vote is small, they rely on protest voters to raise their share. In future, however, voters disillusioned by George Osborne's swinging cuts, or William Hague's rabid euroscepticism - or just the nasty elitism and casual cruelty of the Tory party - will go somewhere else. The full impact of guilt by association is heading their way. David Cameron may have seemed generous in giving up five cabinet seats to his new chums, but they are rickety, splintered pews. Nick Clegg's non-job as deputy prime minister will see him disappear from view, shorn of a spending department to run. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the hapless-looking Danny Alexander is now the face of austerity.

Scottish Secretary is now a non-job, but Michael Moore will again be the man selling cuts to the Scots in the run-up to next May's Scottish Parliamentary elections. Meanwhile Energy Secretary Chris Huhne will have to flog nuclear power to a rightly sceptical public. That seer of the downturn, Vince Cable, the man David Cameron now calls 'an absolute star' after spending the entire election campaign criticising him, is now ploughing his own furrow at the Department of Business, seemingly trying to recreate George Brown's Department for Economic Affairs as he locks horns with George Osborne's Treasury. Like Brown in the 1960s, it will all end in disaster. Of course David Laws didn't last long enough to unpack his potted plants before resigning as chief secretary to the treasury following revelations about his bed and board arrangements. This shows another side of politics the LibDems are not used to. The media's kid gloves treatment of them is now well and truly over.

So how should Labour respond to being spurned? The party should initially try not to. What I mean is that Labour is in the unique position of now being the only credible option for voters disillusioned with the ConDems' record. The party will reap the benefit of this in next May's raft of elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English councils.

The danger for Labour though is that the 2010 result may be a template for subsequent elections. Put simply, Labour might need the LibDems itself next time round. Least said, soonest mended. Let events take their course. Vince Cable's body language when he's near George Osborne tells its own story. This is a loveless marriage. It will probably last the full five years, but at the end of it the thrill, as BB King put it, will, most certainly, be gone.