Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg claimed in his recent Spring Conference speech that voting for his party meant a guarantee of “fairness” and “change you can believe in”. The Lib Dems have traditionally been able to get away with the worst opportunism of the main parties on the basis that they are unlikely ever to get into power. They can say whatever they want, criticise the other parties, knowing they will never be held to account.
The recent pledge of allegiance by ex-New Statesman editor John Kampfer suggests that this pitch is having some effect on elements of the soft left.
But if you have lived under a Lib Dem council — as I do in Leeds where they have been party of a coalition administration with the Tories and Greens since 2004 — you will have seen where their political priorities really lie. And they certainly don’t lie in fairness, equality or the kind of change any socialist can believe in.
At a national level the Lib Dems say they are opposed to Academies, in an attempt to court people fed up with Labour’s privatisation agenda. Yet in Leeds we have gone from one Academy school to three with two more now being proposed. The council cabinet member for education is a Lib Dem.
We have also seen a council pay and grading exercise to deal with equal pay issues implemented in the most ham-fisted and confrontational way possible.
In October 2008 letters were delivered to 1,100 council workers telling them that they were being offered new contracts which would reduce their pay after a period of protection. They were told that if they didn’t accept the new contract they would be dismissed.
In 2009 the council’s pay review left up to 3,500 bin workers and street cleaners facing cuts in pay which would also hit their pensions. The cuts varied from £3,000 a year to £6,000 a year. Some people faced the threat of losing their mortgages and homes. Only protracted and heroic resistance from the workers’ unions, the GMB and Unison, forced the council to reach an agreement which saw all but fifteen of these workers lose no pay.
The council leader throughout the bin dispute? Richard Brett — a Lib Dem councillor.
And these are only the big examples. At the time of writing local campaigners are fighting to prevent the same council from closing the only remaining city centre high school, City of Leeds. A recent public consultation meeting saw over 500 parents, pupils and staff passionately put the case for the school’s survival.
None of this should be any surprise to socialists, who know the Lib Dems are a bourgeois party funded by big business.
Nick Clegg asked his conference to imagine waking up on 7 May to another five years of Labour when he could have offered them so much more. In Leeds we don’t have to imagine. We are living through the experience of the Lib Dems in power, and it’s anything but a radical alternative to Labour.