It’s been a funny old summer.
Usually, governing parties provide us with light entertainment.
This year the tables have been turned and Labour comprehensively owned the ‘silly season’ with their increasingly absurd leadership contest which feels for all the world like a party sticking it’s collective head in the sand and shouting: ‘Stop!…I want to get off!’
Meanwhile the Tories get on with the business of government largely unscrutinised.
In the last session, they ruthlessly exploited a brief parliamentary window of opportunity between the general election and recess fighting various phoney wars with enemies of the [Tory] state.
They declared war on consultants, BBC executives and trade unions in a blur of hyperactivity. So far, so predictable – aren’t Campbell and Blair’s memoirs set texts for Tories these days?
Westminster’s preoccupation with domestic affairs was interrupted briefly by alarm at waves of desperate migrants arriving on British shores and the uunedifying spectacle of our Prime Minister resorting to tabloid language of swarms.
As former Clegg adviser Matthew Hanney wryly observed later:
Just (re)watching In The Thick Of It episode where the Tory spin doctor specifically vetoes using word “swarm” about immigration…
— Matthew Hanney (@MatthewHanney) August 17, 2015
And what about the Lib Dems? Following a strong start opposing the Welfare Bill Tim Farron earned some early brownie points with his efforts to assemble a more diverse front bench (not a straightforward task when we currently have zero women or ethnic minority MPs).
Tim also put some clear blue water between himself and handwringing politicians by visiting Calais in August , the only opposition party leader to do so. to ‘learn about the situation firsthand’.
Lib Dems online (me included) contented on themselves with gallows humour along the lines of: ‘well things could be worse! We could be members of the Labour Party! ‘[insert Corbyn joke here].
Jokes aside, as the summer went on I sensed a new mood.
The longer Labour’s malaise/ summer of discontent continued and the more Blairites continued to put the boot in to their own party the more I started to think Labour are in fact seriously f***ed.
Martin Kettle’s prescient article said it best:
‘Labour does not do modern democracy. Labour won’t reform the voting system, won’t revive local government, won’t abolish the House of Lords, won’t energise industrial and corporate democracy and won’t revive its own internal party democracy either. It is a top-down party, much as the Asquith Liberal party was.’
However, although Labour has been labouring (sic) under the weight of crap headlines this summer, the Lib Dems have shown once again how perilously close we are to becoming an anachronism ourselves.
In a coruscating article about the post-wipeout Lib Dem parliamentary party, entitled Eight white men in a room: Life inside the bleak Liberal Democrats, Cathy Newman wrote:
So appalled are senior parliamentarians at the way the party now looks that some privately mutter that it would have been better if a handful of women had kept their seats in place of some of the surviving men.
One told me: “Leading Lib Dems look like a cross between a Freemasons’ meeting and lunch time at the Garrick.”
Harsh but fair, I thought.
But Cathy added something which caught my eye in particular:
The more forthright of the Lib Dem men admit that the party is now suffering the consequences of failing for decades to do enough to nurture and promote women. I won’t revisit the furore surrounding the Lib Dems’ former chief executive Lord Rennard, except to say that the last leader Nick Clegg admitted letting women down for nearly two decades.
I’m no Westminster insider – I’ve never worked for the party, or for an MP or as a special adviser.
However, I’ve always had a keen some would say vested interest in seeing a more representative Parliament and government.
And even as an enthusiastic, self-confessed Nick Clegg supporter all these years I couldn’t help but notice that Nick really didn’t do much to promote women while he was party leader and Deputy PM.I wrote a blog about this in March.
The news that Nick’s honours list included more men than women sadly did not surprise me in the least.
His list was redolent of the culture of the Liberal Democrat’s recent past: male-dominated, cliquey and resolutely white.
The difference these days is senior female party figures like Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson now feel free to speak out against it.
Speaking to Cathy Newman, Lynne said ruefully:
“We did have women ministers. One always hoped for a promotion: I would have loved to be a cabinet member.”
Jo Swinson, arguably one of the ablest ministers in the last government showed yet again why many people (me included) see her as a leader of the future by writing a brilliant article castigating Nick’s failure.
in the article she described the absence of women on the honours list as ‘depressing and wearily familiar’.
24 hours later, Tim stuck his head about the parapet highlighting quite rightly the fact that ‘Liberal Democrat peers were appointed on the pledge ‘to abolish themselves’.
He attacked Cameron’s ‘cronies’ and added that ‘the people’s laws should only be made by those whom the people have elected.
Earlier in the week he published a video in which he described the lack of diversity in the party he now leads as’ outrageous’ and pledged to change it:
This week we’ve had a timely reminder of what is still wrong with the Lib Dems and by extension what continues to be wrong with our political system.
As a liberal party if we indulge in patronage we get tainted by it.
We are anti-establishment in our approach – or we are nothing and no different from the other Westminster parties.
‘The chumocracy’ – something I’ve written about before – is alive and well in the Lib Dems and it is the biggest threat not simply to our credibility as party but also to our future success.
The next few weeks and months will be the first chance we get to see how serious Tim and his team are about changing both the perception and the reality.
We should not kid ourselves that Labour’s collapse gives the Lib Dems an alienable right to exist.
We have much work to do inside and outside Westminster to win back respect and earn trust from the electorate once again.
Anyway, apropos nothing in particular here’s the best political anthem of the summer: