Since voters long ago stopped believing in ‘promises’ made by parties at election time, politicians now make ‘pledges’. Pledges, as opposed to promises, are made to be kept. Pledges are like principles; firm, non negotiable, inviolable contracts with the people. Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, made a number of pre-election pledges, but none quite as emphatic as the one not to increase student tuition fees. He got out his pen and signed a pledge not to increase them at all, and just for good measure set out a timetable to abolish them altogether! Now they are set to rise exponentially. The average student of the future could be looking to have to fork out over £40,000 after leaving university – should he or she be lucky enough to land a job. Today, that ‘Clegg pledge’ on tuition fees has as much value as a Zimbabwean ten thousand dollar bill.
So spare a thought for all of those Liberal Democrats MPs, many elected in university towns such as Norwich and Bristol who can’t fall back on the upholstered comfort of a seat in a Ministerial car. What a life of purgatory and misery it must be for them, caught as they are between a rock and hard place, tramping ever more reluctantly through the lobbies in the House of Commons, faces contorted as if they had each swallowed a swarm of wasps. What must it be like for MPs, and councillors for that matter, whose life long trade in the pavement politics of promises for this and promises for that, has instead become a grinding existence of watching those same promises go up in smoke? Housing benefits? Cut. Child Benefit? Cut VAT? Up. On it goes, and many Lib Dem MPs have gone from being restive to downright rebellious in a matter of months. The question is; could this week’s angry student demonstrations be their tipping point? Take Portsmouth MP, Mike Hancock for instance. He now accuses his leaders of running a “dictatorship” over the party. Or what about Lib Dem poster boy, Andrew Lewin? At twenty three he was the party’s youngest candidate at the election, flush with the enthusiasm of that bright new morning pledged by Nick Clegg in all of those now far off sepia tinged TV debates. Now young Andrew says bitterly of his erstwhile leaders “they have swallowed a virtually unreformed Conservative agenda!” He has since torn up his membership card.
It was Tony Blair’s disastrous decision to attack Iraq that proved the tipping point for legions of traditional Labour supporters to say ‘enough is enough!’ But that was after six years of Labour Government. Many Lib Dem supporters are now saying ‘enough is enough’ after barely six months of Coalition Government. And for so many of those voters, who heeded The Guardian newspaper’s clarion call to support the Lib Dems, especially in university towns, the sense of betrayal is deeply felt. It is one thing not to be liked. It is quite another to be despised. To listen to Nick Clegg and Vince Cable flannelling around, excusing their tuition fees volte face, as the unenviable price of entering into a Coalition, begs another question. What sort of negotiators are they? Any union negotiator, who came away from the table with as few crumbs as Clegg and Cable have managed to scrape together, would be out on his ear.
Earlier this week, another former Liberal Democrat leader, Lord Steel, who does know something about co-habiting and negotiating with another political party, spoke at a Memorial meeting for the late Michael Foot in London. Steel never made the mistake of entering a coalition with Labour in the 1970s; he made a ‘pact’ with Callaghan and Foot’s party. A ‘pact’ is like a ‘promise’, in the same way that a Coalition is like a ‘pledge’. You can get out of the former, but you can’t escape the latter. Tellingly he said that “Michael Foot wouldn’t be very happy at some of the things Liberal Democrats were doing”. Translated, I suspect that means that David Steel isn’t too happy either. And for every David Steel, there is a Shirley Williams or a Charles Kennedy, champing at the bit, chewing on the carpet, digging their finger nails ever deeper into their hands.
To be fair, any junior party in a Coalition was always going to face a squeeze, and the Liberal Democrats are no exception. But it is the sheer speed and depth that the Lib Dems have plummeted in the polls that now has many MPs wondering if they can survive another General Election, without a formal pact with the Conservatives or by being swallowed up by the Conservatives altogether. Some forlornly pin their hopes on the promised referendum on the ‘Alternative Vote’, as a pledge their party can keep. But in a darker, tougher, more austere Britain, divided as it is now between the super rich and the rest of us, who next spring will really give a monkey about tinkering with the electoral system?
At the outset of the First World War, the great Liberal Statesman, Sir Edward Grey said "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time". Today, north of the M25, the street lamps are going out all over Britain as local councils brace themselves for the cuts. Of one thing we can be sure, it won’t be Liberal Democrat councillors who one day get to switch them on again.