Thursday, February 10, 2011

Matthew Oakeshott: some calm reflection the morning after

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I have to say that I was utterly livid when I discovered courtesy of Jonathan Calder that Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesman in the Lords Matthew Oakeshott was no longer in position because of comments he had made criticising the deal George Osborne struck with the bankers. I couldn't get on to the laptop, though, to write about it then, and thought I'd give it some calm reflection until the morning. That's more than Danny Alexander gave Matthew before he effectively removed him from his position.

By all accounts, it's a modest deal. Chief Executives of banks owned by the taxpayer will still end up getting 7 figure bonuses while the rest of us have to tighten our belts. And tell me something about lending to businesses. It's supposed to go up by £11 billion, which isn't a huge amount really, only 6% of an increase. Why decide such things on a global figure rather than the sustainability of the businesses who need the investment. I mean, if we're going to grow the economy, surely to goodness we need banks to up their lending by more than 6%. I know I'm only a blogger who can't count, but it strikes me as obvious that this isn't good enough. And while we're about it, we normal folk don't get to negotiate our tax returns and our benefit claims, do we?  We just get told what we're doing and we have to like it or lump it. It seems different if you're rich and powerful, even if the taxpayer owns a fair chunk of you.

This Government is not the first to pander to big business and it won't be the last. Labour spent 13 years doing it and the fact that we're in the mess we're in is partly down to their failure to regulate the banks.

The public needs to see the Government getting tough with bankers, not rolling over and getting their tummy tickled. I'd say that Osborne's deal is a baby step in the right direction, but it's not nearly brave enough.

It is Osborne's deal, though, not Liberal Democrat policy. Matthew Oakeshott was not an official part of the Government. He was not bound by collective responsibility. He was about as enamoured by the deal as most of the rest of us Lib Dems were and was right to say so.

Let's be clear. George Osborne doesn't and never will have any sort of hand in Liberal Democrat policy. Our policy as regards banks and anything else is for our Conference to decide. How are we going to have a distinctive voice and get it heard if anyone who disagrees with what the Coalition does is muzzled?

Our Ministers have asked for, and received, a great deal of trust and support, often against the Party's better judgement, in the last few months. Partly that's because of the goodwill Nick extended to us at the beginning, giving much more consultation than was technically required.

I know that by and large they are all fighting hard for Liberal Democrat values and have had some big wins within the Coalition. They are punching above their weight. No doubt about that. And I expect that some of the biggest fights have been within the Treasury.

A few days after the Coalition was formed, I did a post giving some friendly advice to Ministers on the benefits of maintaining friendly relations with the Party. When you need to ask an organisation to be patient and tolerant with you, you really shouldn't irritate it when there's no good reason. As I said at the time:

 The biggest and best piece of advice I could give to any of our new government people is keep talking to the party. Tell us what's happening, what the challenges are and let us support you. If you just go off and do stuff that seems a bit weird to the party without explanation, we are going to feel ignored and left out and will get grumpy. That will make you want to talk to us even less and the whole thing will descend into a cycle of grumpiness and suspicion that really isn't pleasant for anyone.
I've seen it happen before when, for example, a Lib Dem Council group is formed for the first time, or a Council administration. Sometimes the people who are holding the office at whatever level can really feel that their loyalties are torn. A friend of mine and I were talking yesterday and he called it almost like Stockholm Syndrome. Our ministers will be spending most of their time within the corridors of power and may feel that their first loyalty is to the Government rather than the party. In fact, there may be times on both sides of the coalition when the company of people outside their party is preferable. I think that this sort of thing is inevitable but both the ministers and the party need to be aware of it and do the old working at our relationship sort of thing. We in the party need to listen to the ministers and understand the pressures on them too. Just take it from experience that a bit of time cuddling up to the party will pay dividends in the long term and cause much less hassle.

I think that certain people may have fallen a bit too far down the rabbit hole and someone needs to grab hold of their ankles and drag them back a bit.

The way Matthew Oakeshott has been treated is just plain wrong - and an unnecessary slight to the party.

So, after calm reflection, I am probably even more livid than I was last night.

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