David Cameron

Milk saved — evidence of the ‘coalition effect’?

Milk saved — evidence of the ‘coalition effect’?

Cows, Marlcliff BBC News – Downing Street rejects child milk scheme cut suggestion. David Cameron has come out against UK Health Minister Anne Milton’s proposal to scrap free milk for under fives. Of course, we will never know the real reasoning behind this U-turn, but the following factors are certainly at play:

  • Nobody likes to be seen taking milk from small children
  • Conservatives are still occasionally reminded that it was Margaret Thatcher who took the milk away from the children last time
  • It’s a gift to Labour leadership contenders — in fact, David Miliband had already described the proposal as a ‘cruel cut’.
  • The Liberal Democrats are restless. In a coalition where both parties are required for the coalition to happen, one restless Lib Dem MP counts the same as eight restless Tory back-benchers.

Whatever the real reasoning — and David Cameron may not himself understand all the factors which led to a Tory minister being unceremoniously stamped on — I see this as a sign that coalition politics is working for Britain. Whichever way you look at it, Cameron is showing sensitivity to what ordinary (non-Tory) people think. It’s a fair bet that the vast majority of people who will benefit from this are not Tory voters. Where under-5s are deprived of milk, the chances are that it’s linked to inner-city deprivation, not to countryside middle-class angst.

Whether this may reduce Cameron as a strong leader in the eyes of the world (seriously, he may have been reduced over the last couple of weeks, but not because of milk), it shows that our government is, at least in some sense, acting as our government. This by contrast with the Thatcher government, and, lest we forget, the Blair-Brown government, which felt free to act with impunity, especially when its decisions affected people who didn’t vote for it.

Incidentally, Anne Milton was probably right in her claim that the scientific evidence doesn’t actually support free milk. But educating politicians to make evidence based decisions as opposed to merely acceptable ones is probably a battle for another day.

Nonetheless, we progress.

In the nation’s interests

I have received howls of protest over the last few days from Lib Dem members, people who voted Lib Dem but usually vote Labour, and people who have never voted Lib Dem and never intend to. Some have demanded that Nick Clegg immediately fall into line behind Cameron and stop negotiating for ‘party advantage’. Some have insisted that for Clegg to co-ally would be a betrayal of all that is most sacred. Some have told me that talking to Labour was equivalent to state treachery, and Clegg can never be trusted again. By email, phone, Facebook, txt, tweet and even visits to my door, and, bizarrest of all, an email sent from Australia by someone I had never heard of directed to all Lib Dem candidates who contested the election, it’s been made clear to me that whatever Nick Clegg did, not everyone would be happy.

I have to confess I’ve struggled to get quite as emotionally caught up in this as some people. Those of us who stand for parliament do so with an underlying notion of public service. Of course we want our party to win. And there is always personal ambition: we want to be in there, making the decisions, with our fingers on the turning of the world. But nobody would go through the five weeks of gruelling punishment, preceded by four years of selection and campaigning, preceded in turn by how ever many years of becoming involved and going through a candidate approval process, unless there was more than simply the desire for our team to win.

Nick Clegg was always honour-bound to make his decision in the nation’s best interests. Anything less would have simply ruled him unfit to be a party leader.

The only question was: what decision would be in the nation’s best interests?

I will put my cards on the table: after last year’s expenses debacle, and this year’s scandal over the Ashcroft million, electoral reform seems to me to be one of the nation’s most important and pressing concerns. The result of the General Election — no clear majority in parliament, nothing like a majority in the popular vote (Tories polled only 12% more than Lib Dems, lest we forget, but gained more than five times as many seats) — demonstrates very clearly that the public are not satisfied.

But, although pressing, electoral reform is not the most pressing concern. I do not accept the view of the scaremongerers that Britain is about to go the way of Greece. David Cameron has already had to eat his words that a hung parliament would spell economic disaster. But it is true that the economy is right at the top of the list of things that need to be fixed now, and fixed right.

A coalition with Labour was always a long-shot, and Clegg was right to honour his election pledge and talk first to the party with the most votes. But he was also right to at least attempt a deal with Labour. This was not treachery, as some of the Tory press and some of my own correspondents have suggested, but a necessary and entirely honourable step: Clegg was duty bound to explore both feasible possibilities as he decided for the United Kingdom who should be the next prime minister.

For the record, I think it would have been possible to do it. (I do not say that it would have necessarily been the best thing, but I do say that it would have been possible). Those who argued that this was undemocratic forget the very shaky ground on which they stand: Labour and the Lib Dems between them gained more than 50% of the popular vote, although, because of our misrepresentative system, this was not quite 50% of the seats in parliament. Labour certainly seemed ready to promise a much swifter, much surer route to electoral reform. And Gordon Brown nobly was willing to accept Nick Clegg’s other election promise — that, whatever happened, Brown would not continue as Prime Minister.

But it was Labour MPs themselves who made it quite clear that they had no real interest in staying in government. From the point that (then, still) government ministers went on the record in public stating this, the chances of a deal with Labour were over.

Many Lib Dem voters find the coalition with the Conservatives distasteful. I personally remained on good terms with all the candidates in the Stratford election, except for the BNP who never attended any of the debates and with whom I never spoke. But there have been instances where Tory attacks were brutal and unfounded. And we have endured the jeers and scorn of the Tory press barons for more than a generation.

It is certainly true that very few will have voted Lib Dem with the aim of putting David Cameron in government.

But Nick Clegg still had to put the nation’s interest ahead of his own. The choice between a Conservative minority government which would be almost certain to fall in recriminations within six months, in which time it would have made little real progress in tackling the economic crisis, and none at all in electoral reform, or a true Lib Dem Con coalition, was one that simply could not be made in any other way from the way it has been made.

The solution is not perfect. David Cameron could have divested himself of the lacklustre George Osborne. If having Vince Cable as chancellor was too much to swallow (though it would have pleased the nation, and the markets), Ken Clarke was waiting in the wings, the only member of Cameron’s team who had ever served in a senior role in a government. There could have been (and should have) a commitment to a referendum on true electoral reform, not merely the disproportional Alternative Vote (AV) system. If the Conservatives believe that the public has no appetite for electoral reform, then they should have agreed to a referendum on the real issue. If they were willing to accept a grudging compromise and no more, they should have offered a simple bill on AV as Labour did, and left it at that. The nation is to be put to the trouble and expense of a referendum without being allowed to vote on the real topic of discussion.

Nonetheless, the prospect of an autumn election has receded to the horizon. Cameron’s lightweight team will be strongly bolstered by 5 Lib Dem cabinet ministers, and a total of 20 Lib Dems across his ministries.

Lib Dem fortunes at the next election will almost certainly suffer, and there will equally certainly be a spate of recriminations and even member-resignations. And this is the true mark of Nick Clegg’s leadership: at personal cost, he has put the interests of the nation first.

Voter intention 36:36:24

Following tonight’s final debate, ComRes have polled for voter intention, and the result is Lib Dems 36%, Conservatives 36%, Labour 24%. This is an important result, because it shows the aggregate effect of all the debates and everything else that has happened. Conservatives were quick to jump on two early polls which suggested Cameron had won the debate, but the key issue is not “who won tonight’s debate” but “who won the series as a whole”. The answer is quite clearly that Lib-Dems have shot up by a figure greater than 15%, and a totally different outcome is now expected from the Cameron-win-or-hung-parliament of two weeks and one day ago.

David Cameron has been pedalling the line that a hung parliament would be an unfair and undesirable result given that the Tories deserve to win. But, really, he has not got over the fact that, six months ago, he was nine points ahead in the polls. He is probably (though with certain rather obvious reservations) right that it would have been unfair for him to be neck and neck with Labour in terms of numbers of seats with a nine point lead — always providing that we accept that someone who scores a third of the vote should deserve to get more than half the seats. But his idea that it is unfair for him to not win the election when he doesn’t even poll the highest number of votes is patently absurd.

Cameron needs to have a good long look at himself. He paints himself as a liberal, progressive, ‘changed Conservative’. But, in reality, his entire approach to the election is that Labour has been in for 13 years and it’s now ‘his turn’.

It is not his turn. He has failed to persuade the majority of voters that he is Prime Ministerial material.

On tonight’s poll, based on the BBC’s uniform swing seat calculator, Tories would get 285 seats, Labour 182, and Lib Dems 157. Others would get 26. Cameron would not only be far short of the seats he needs to win, but would also be far short of the seats he needs to form a government with all of the ‘others’ as coalition partners, enabling him to side-step the question of a coalition with the Lib Dems and the requirement for proportional representation.

In any case, the Lib Dems are not offering anyone a coalition. As Nick Clegg has repeatedly pointed out, the electorate must decide who they want to run the country. Cameron does not seem to get this: his notion that he has some implicit right to be the next prime minister based on the same poll as his (now) main competitor is laughable. His notion that this status quo ought to continue until some serendipitous roll of the dice gives him that role is worse than laughable.

That 36:36:24 yields a result of 157:285:182 is surely the most compelling demonstration that our electoral system does not properly reflect the will of the people. Britain is demanding change — and real, not cosmetic, change.

‘Big Society’ unwelcome

The Conservatives are making a lot of play of their ‘Big Society’, where voluntary organisations, community groups and charities pick up the areas from which the government would withdraw, under their plans for a smaller government. But as a former voluntary and charity worker, I wonder if they’ve asked the voluntary organisations themselves.

Anyone who has worked with a voluntary organisation that has, at some time, taken government funding or a government mandate will know that it can be a poisoned chalice. Not long ago a charity chief executive told me that it was an annual nightmare to try to work out the following year’s budgets, because the government was so late in deciding what they would fund that all the staff had to be put on notice of redundancy for three months each spring. This goes for central government funding, arms length funding — for example, through the Arts Council –, local government funding, and funding which comes through Local Education Authorities or by even more circuitous routes.

But perhaps the Conservatives are not interested in actually giving money to charities. They are, after all, trying to reduce expenditure. It’s true that charities often use money more efficiently than government does (although that is because they supplement it through fundraising), but if you don’t want to hand any money over at all, then there is no danger of charities becoming grant-dependent.

But that begs the question, why would any charities redefine their objectives in order to fulfil Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ plan? What’s worse, what would the mechanism for communicating this plan be? I’ve been to many seminars designed to engage my interest as an arts worker, church leader, health worker, businessman, public relations practitioner, musician (remember that each man in his time plays many parts!). As often as not, these seminars entirely fail to hit their market. I’ve sat with young musicians in torn jeans and Nikes while a middle-aged man in a suit tried to explain new structures for the arts. I’ve sat in meetings targeted at church leaders where local authority bureaucrats began by explaining their opposition to organised religion, but their (uncomfortable) willingness for churches to get involved with their community project. I’ve sat in tedious seminars for health workers where the speaker seemed to imagine that, as health workers, we clearly weren’t very bright, and had to have our own jobs explained to us. I generally come away with mild interest — usually much milder than the interest I went in with. I don’t ever recall actually doing anything differently as a result of such talkings-to.

Community groups, charities and other targets of David Cameron exist not for his benefit, but for whatever purpose they were created for. They also have a character which is unique, based on the community of people that run them. Neither of these are amenable to a sudden diktat from government, nor to softer overtures. If Britain’s charities are not currently delivering the Big Society that David Cameron wants (and clearly they are not, otherwise he would not have to try to make his case), then they are not going to suddenly start delivering it because he asks them to.

The crucial thing about voluntary organisations which David Cameron seems to fail to understand is, simply, that they are voluntary.

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