Much has been written about David Laws’ resignation. Personally, I can’t see it as anything other than another expenses story where the guilty party has accepted responsibility. Resigning was the right thing to do because Laws was in clear breach of the rules and had lost the moral authority his position required. Dragging his sexuality into it was irrelevant and unfortunate. However, there’s no overlap between addressing personal turmoil and breaching the rules on expenses claims. It did Laws himself no credit to try to blur the distinction. It does Nick Clegg less credit to continue to defend him after his sanctimonious whining about expenses throughout the election campaign. Another issue, like tuition fees, PR, nuclear weapons and public service cuts which has been sacrificed to the god of “new politics”.
Laws’ resignation has raised another interesting issue though – his replacement. It is difficult to look at Danny Alexander’s track record and experience and understand why he was chosen for the role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury. While Laws was feted for his banking experience and oft-quoted “double first” in economics, Alexander worked in PR for 11 years before becoming an MP, promoting the Britain in Europe group and latterly the Cairngorms National Park. You could suggest that this gives him six years on David Cameron, who only managed five in PR at Carlton TV, but doesn’t exactly stand him out from the crowd as a natural successor to Laws. However, what he is, is a Lib Dem insider. He is close to Clegg and that’s why the Tories want him there. Quite clearly there are better candidates for the job, but Osborne needs a foil. He must be desperate at the loss of Laws who gave the cuts programme some perceived gravitas. Now we’ve got two thirty-sometimes with no economic qualifications or background in charge of an ideologically driven spending review. Osborne needs someone to share the blame when the inevitable criticisms start to rain in.
I expect Alexander to be considerably more high-profile than Liam Byrne was in the role for Labour. The previous government relied on Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown to present the economic arguments. Cameron will want a degree of distance from the cuts, which could seriously harm his own position, while at the same time ensuring that every closed Sure Start centre, every cut in police numbers, every privatised element of the NHS is presented by a “coalition” team. In two years time (if he makes it that far), Alexander may well be running for the Cairngorms and wishing he’d stuck to real mountains rather than political ones.
I was initially pleasantly surprised by some of Nick Clegg’s speech on the “new politics” today, even if cancelling things that don’t yet exist hardly constitutes groundbreaking reform along the lines of universal suffrage. There is a need to renew our political system and reconnect people to politics, but looking deeper into the substance of the speech, the tangible actions proposed seem a little underwhelming.
On government involvement in everyday life, he made some important statements about pulling back from a database state, but this primarily involved scrapping initiatives that would probably never have been implemented anyway – compulsory ID cards, children’s registers and fingerprinting, for example. Not seeing something that the public haven’t seen up to now will not be felt as a seismic shift in everyday life. However, I will happily give him credit for recognising that government has become overbearing in some areas of life and checking this is a positive move.
There were some loose ideas about handing control of hospitals and schools to people, with echoes of the “Big Society”, but this is not political reform, it is policy reform, and the two are very different. We will need much, much more information about how we are supposed to control our public services (and how this will improve them) before this can be judged. It is also nothing to do with reform of the political system.
And it was on the reform of that political system that Clegg’s speech was both more important and much more disappointing. Behind the rhetoric lay, well, not very much. A referendum on AV is not the groundbreaking change to our voting system we require – it’s a massive fudge from a Liberal Democrat who has always said proportional representation was essential. AV is not proportional, just slightly more equitable. It doesn’t mean that parliament reflects the first choice wishes of the people any more than First Past the Post. A partially elected House of Lords, especially with the proposed interim appointment of coalition peers is another halfway house which will improve virtually nothing. We need a fully-elected, proportional upper chamber with a clearly defined role. Another proposal, on cutting the number of MPs, doesn’t make any sense at all to me. The speech was full of fine words about giving people more control, but having less MPs serving the public across natural boundaries of local authority control will make it harder for people to connect to their representatives. It’s Tory gerrymandering and it does Clegg no credit to promote it as a great, liberating reform.
So, look ahead two years and what will have changed because of the ideas in this speech? What change will ordinary people actually notice in the way politics works? I think very little. There may be a slight change in the ballot paper come May 7 2015 (Clegg’s date for the next election), but with Cameron actively campaigning against AV, don’t bet the farm on it. It remains to be seen whether the policy proposals turn out to be more profound than the political ones.