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Socialism Today 114 - December 2007/January 2008

Stuck in the middle with Huhne (or Clegg)

EVEN A late spat over a leaked document – ‘Calamity Clegg’, produced by Huhne supporters – has done little to liven up a dull Liberal Democrat election contest to decide their successor to Menzies (Ming) Campbell as party leader. Squeezed by the Brown-bounce and then the Tories’ inheritance tax resurgence, the Lib-Dems plummeted to 11% in the opinion polls leading to Ming’s ‘was he pushed or did he fall’ resignation in early October. Ballot papers went out to the Lib-Dems’ 64,000 members on 21 November with the new leader to be declared on 17 December.

It is hardly surprising that the leadership campaign has been so boring because there is so little difference between the two candidates, Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg. Both were educated at fee-paying Westminster school (£8,652 a term this year), have backgrounds in economics, have been Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), became MPs in 2005, and have been associated with the free-market Lib-Dem faction whose ideas were published in The Orange Book.

Some political commentators have pointed to the uncanny similarity with the New Labour leadership contest that wasn’t, between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in 1994. "The economics man regards himself as the senior partner even though the friends-turned-rivals entered parliament at the same time. He is older than the home affairs spokesman, and seen as slightly to the left of him on policy. He doubts his rival’s economic credentials and doesn’t want the leadership contest to be a ‘beauty contest’ because his telegenic junior partner is widely regarded as the man who can reach beyond the party’s traditional supporters", writes Andrew Grice. (The Independent, 3 November)

And like New Labour’s two main architects, the Lib-Dem candidates were once close but fell out last year. Clegg, who was a ‘Minger’, was miffed when Huhne stood against Ming Campbell after hinting that he would not.

But are there any real policy differences between the two contenders? Only on Trident has a clear policy difference emerged – Huhne wants to ditch existing party policy of extending the life of the current missile system and either give it up unilaterally or keep only a minimum deterrent, while Clegg is a ‘multi-lateralist to his fingertips’ and would retain Trident, supposedly to negotiate with at the international nuclear bargaining table.

Clegg is an economic liberal, supporter of the free market, wants a meritocratic society, is open to public service ‘reform’ through choice and competition, and hinted at (then denied) favouring education vouchers and social health insurance. This has prompted Huhne to imply his rival is ‘Cameron-lite’, which Clegg denies: "Dare I say it – David Cameron is Clegg Lite!"

On the other hand, Huhne portrays himself as a social liberal who wants to "promote equality". He says "Now Gordon Brown is grabbing Cameron’s policies. So which twin is the Tory? Even the keenest-marketeers in our party must see there is no gap in the market for us to parrot the Tory twins’ sound bites on competition and choice in public services". This ‘left-liberalism’ is undoubtedly aimed at the party activists who tend to be more ‘left-wing’ than their MPs (the majority of MPs have already declared their support for Clegg).

Indeed, Huhne has gone further: "Frankly there are already two conservative parties in British politics and we don’t need a third. What Britain needs is a radical party".

Journalist and former Social Democratic Party (SDP) member, Polly Toynbee agrees. Writing astutely, for her, in The Guardian (16 November), she says about the Lib-Dems, "If they are not a radical alternative to the increasingly similar establishment parties, they are mere ceremonial adjuncts at Queen’s speeches and the Cenotaph, pestilential mavericks locally while nationally only a mild irritant".

At the last general election, the Lib-Dems did appear to many as more left-wing than the now openly capitalist Labour Party. They gained most seats in traditional Labour constituencies and student areas due to their ‘anti-war’ stance and opposition to tuition fees. However, they have since dropped their ‘radical’ headline policy of a 50% tax-rate for those earning over £100,000 per annum (precisely when it would be even more popular), and their subsequent penny on income tax for education.

If Huhne wins the leadership (unlikely but not ruled out as he got 42% standing against Ming Campbell last year), could he push the Lib-Dems to the left of Labour as his rhetoric implies? That seems very unlikely. Other supposed left-leaning liberals like Simon Hughes and Steve Webb (chair of the Lib-Dems election manifesto team) are backing Clegg. Clegg himself accuses Huhne of "creating synthetic differences between us that do not exist". And Huhne’s professed radicalism is exposed as soon as he has to put policies or actions to his sound bites. For example, he has spoken out against fat-cat salaries but proposes nothing more than social pressure – publicity and shareholder votes – as a means of correcting it.

Worse still, having criticised both supermarkets and the Big Brother surveillance state, it turns out that Huhne is a major shareholder in a company that supplies ‘people monitoring’ technology to Tesco! He owns £250,000 shares in Irisys, a company that makes thermal imaging technology used to track people as they move. Not very liberal, let alone left-wing!

No. The Lib-Dems are another capitalist party. "But, as ever, they are profoundly conflicted by electoral necessity, fighting Tories in their old rural stamping grounds and Labour in their newer northern seats. Tactically, that tempts them to the crowded centre, fighting both way campaigns to suit local circumstances". (Polly Toynbee again)

At the next general election, however, most of the Lib-Dems marginal seats are threatened by the Tories, including Huhne’s in Eastleigh where he only has a 568 majority. Likewise, the Lib-Dems are the challenger in 25 out of the Tories’ 30 most marginal seats. Also in a recent Populus poll of so-called ‘supervoters’ (ie those who voted in 2005 and therefore are most likely to actually vote again), 18% of 2005 Lib-Dem voters said they would now vote Tory compared with 12% who would switch to Labour. So whoever is elected the new leader, this electoral arithmetic means that inevitably the Lib-Dems will try to woo Tory voters. That necessity increases the chances that the Cameron-lite Clegg will get the party vote.

Indeed, Clegg is ahead with the bookies. And the Lib-Dems have already enjoyed their own little bounce, up to 18% in the polls. Given the volatility of British politics at the moment, reflected in the opinion poll gyrations around the November election that never was, it is difficult to predict whether the Lib-Dems will be able to recover support to their 2005 election result of 63 MPs from 22% of the vote. Even if they don’t, even with 40-50 MPs, there is a real possibility that they will hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. This means that the Lib-Dems could enter government in a coalition.

On this issue Clegg has stated, "I think it would be extremely ill-advised to single out a red-line here or there… to start playing Westminster footsie with one party or another now is something the electorate would not like… [They] quite rightly want to first have their say and then we can see where the parties lie". In other words he’s up for coalition with New Labour or the Tories if it will get the highly ambitious Mr Clegg into power!

Alistair Tice


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