Two incidents have forced me to give some thought to the issue of what is the future for the Lib Dems in Barnet. The first is the Brunswick Park result, where the Lib Dems got less than three percent of the vote. The second is an exchange of comments with Matthew Harris, the former Lib Dem candidate for Hendon. Whilst I've said everything I have to say regarding Matthew, he asked me a very interesting question. He suggested that there was no way I could claim that Gordon Brown's government was better than the coalition.
I hadn't given this question any thought whatsoever until Matthew posed the question. I thought Brown ran a truly awful adminstration. Not only was it seemingly out of touch and dominated by Brown's autocratic tendencies, it made a whole string of appallingly inept political decisions. The worst of these was abolishing the 10p tax rate. So how does the coalition compare? Sadly, it seems to me that they are even worse. The economy has slid into recession, directly as a result of government imposed austerity policies. As industrial growth grinds to a halt, what is the solution the coalition chose? A big tax cut for the most well off. I have to ask myself, what do the Richard Bransons of this world do with huge sums of extra cash? Buy villas in Martinique, expensive German cars and luxury truffles snorted out by only the finest French porkers? A stereotype, I admit, but there is no way that I can see how this benefits the UK economy (of course I have no idea whether Branson likes truffles or German cars). At the same time, the coalition has given tuition fees a massive hike and abolished EMA. What does this do to the economy. It puts young people of going to college and University. It then saddles them with debt for years. As they progress into careers, their concern will be paying back a mountain of debt. This is takes money out of the economy. Students and young people starting out in their career spend virtually all of their money in the local economy. It depresses high streets and stifles employment. It is short termist and economically destructive.
I have two children who will hopefully be going to University in the next three years. The coalition has made this whole issue a worry and a finacial issue for them. I didn't go to University, although I got A levels that would have got me in. One of the reasons was that due to the arrangements at the time, I'd have got what was called "the minimum grant". This was because I was the youngest child of wealthy parents. My brothers and sisters who attended Uni all got a full grant. It meant I'd have to rely on "parental contribution". I was worried that any bust up with my parents (and these were frequent) would have resulted in them withdrawing financial support. I did not want to be placed in that situation.
Which brings us back to Matthews question. Whilst I think Brown did a rotten job, I think the coalition have enacted polices which will be far more damaging in the long term. Which leads us to the local situation. The Lib Dem Barnet voters have traditionally been on the centre left. It is clear from the Brunswick Park vote that they have deserted the party on mass, defecting to Labour. There is no way these voters will return to the Lib Dems for a long, long time.
There is however an opportunity presented by the extraordinary ineptness of the local Tory party. As the Lib Dems are now effectively Tory lite, the sensible thing to would be to rebrand themselves in Barnet as the acceptable face of the coalition. Given the lack of talent in the Tory cabinet and the fact that Jack Cohen is head and shoulders above any Conservative councillor in Barnet, maybe the way forward is to declare a Barnet Coalition. Bring Jack into the Cabinet and let him sort out the mess that the likes of Coleman and Rams have left. If the Tories left Jack and the other Lib Dems a free run in Childs Hill and stepped back in a couple of Labour controlled wards to allow the Lib Dems a chance to fly the centre right flag, it is always possible that they may actually avoid a complete wipeout.
I suspect that Jack Cohen is shrewd enough a politician to know exactly what sort of a damage limitation exercise is needed to prevent an armageddon for the Tories and the Lib Dems in Barnet. Of course this policy would completely alienate myself and every other person on the left, who have previously voted Lib Dem as a means of stopping the Barnet Tories, but lets face it, we were alienated the day the Tories and the Lib Dems jumped into bed at national level.
There are many councils up and down the country where Lib Dems and Tories have run the administration for years in grand anti Labour pacts. This was a fact I was extraordinarily naive about when I joined the party in 2009. I first became aware of this on the doorstep when a voter presented me with a labour party leaflet giving the details. I believe that this leaflet, more than anything destroyed the credibility of the Lib Dems in Mill Hill and High Barnet and ensured the Tories victory. As it turned out, I would have been in an impossible position had I been elected as a Lib Dem in Mill Hill. I would have felt duty bound to represent the people who voted for me and the people who campaigned for me. At the same time I would have belonged to a party who were enacting policies which I find repulsive.
It may sound strange, but I think Barnet is one place where we do need a strong third party. The Tories organisation is completely dysfunctional. They have presided over a complete disaster and with the One Barnet fiasco it will just get worse. Unless they come up with some sort of strategy, they will be wiped out completely and Labour will sweep the board. A coalition with the Lib Dems and a complete abandonment of useless policies and useless cabinet members may provide some sort of relief from the complete implosion of their vote. As for the Lib Dems it may at least offer them the opportunity to say to the voters of Barnet "we have a purpose". It will be a difficult decision for both parties, but if they were to bite the bullet now, they'd have two years to try and rebuild their reputation and go into an election with some sort of track record.
Sadly for the Tories and the Lib Dems in Barnet, there is as much chance of common sense breaking out before 2014 as there is of me being elected Pope.
(Please note that I am no longer a Lib Dem and can see no circumstances under which I would vote for them again, following the coalition agreement).