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Articles > Politics July, 01, 2010

Why we no longer agree with Nick…

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The adage that ‘idealism is what precedes experience, cynicism is what follows’ is something often preached by older generations and frequently ignored by younger ones. When it comes to politics however, the 2010 general election has shown a number of first time voters that this journey from optimism to pessimism can be prematurely short.

As with all student generations, we don’t fully accept the world that we’ve inherited. The sense that things must be a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been rings hollow in our ears and many simply enjoy opposing that status quo for opposition’s sake. Unlike previous generations however, the possibility of really changing the landscape of politics seemed genuinely within our grasp in this year’s election. We had seen Obama defy the odds in the US, and now it was our turn to vote for change.

Many saw this route to involve empowering a largely ignored party, the Liberal Democrats, who promised a fairer society, radical voting reform and an alternative to the stuffy, adversarial two party politics that has come to be synonymous with Westminster- a party that encouraged young people to register to vote and persuaded them that they mattered. And it was a strategy that appeared to have worked. The Lib Dems’ situation changed from one where, on ‘First-Time Voter’s Question Time’, one audience member asked what Brown, Cameron, and ‘that other guy’ proposed to do, to a media frenzy that catapulted Nick Clegg into the election’s spotlight.


On the night of the 6th May 2010, there was a sense of unfettered excitement and anticipation in the Sheffield Student Union. Crowded around televisions in Nick Clegg’s constituency and awaiting the election results, with our political allegiances proudly displayed by the purchase of cocktails in party colours, it would be true to say that yellow drinks adorned a good deal of glasses. But far more specific than my own crude calculations, polls have shown that around half of the nation’s students backed the supposed party of change. We agreed with Nick.

Yet a matter of weeks later and the position of the Lib Dem voter has changed dramatically; from that of the enthusiastic optimist to at best bemused and at worst, livid. It isn’t hard to see why. The very people I rubbed shoulders with at the polling station were the ones that got Nick Clegg elected for Sheffield Hallam constituency, yet now Sheffield has borne the brunt of the new coalition government’s spending cuts with the plug being pulled on three projects, totaling loans of around £150 million and more importantly, hundreds of jobs. What we were promised is simply not what we’re getting and, worse, what we voted against is now precisely what Lib Dems will be voting for in the Commons in a shameless pact with the Conservatives. Savage early cuts and the Tories’ ‘secret VAT bombshell’, both of which were publicly renounced by Clegg during the election campaign are now to become a reality with Liberal Democrat backing. Anyone who watched the budget will have seen a stern-faced Clegg sitting behind George Osborne, nodding approval at a variety of policies which just a few weeks before, he campaigned passionately against. Gone was the air of change and rejuvenation, and there arrived instead the feeling of betrayal and of a failed mandate that now surrounds the party. As Harriet Harman put it, they have sacrificed everything to ride on the Tories’ coat-tails.

But while the Clegg-effect on policy is yet to be discovered, for the time being the most tangible product of the Liberal Democrats’ time in office is their plummeting popularity in the polls, down around 8 points since the election to 15%. The price in terms of principles of the party coming out from the political wilderness has simply been much higher than anyone expected, and has come as a particularly hard-knock to the idealist- the Lib Dem’s core voter. So, whilst for some it may take the course of a lifetime before life experience outweighs optimism, perhaps the disillusion of many first-time voters means that that well-trodden path towards cynicism is now well underway.


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  1. Aaron Davies

    I will continue to vote Lib Dem. They are not the party in government, the Conservatives are and people who are complaining that the Lib Dem policies are not being brought in must realise this.
    I am disappointed that some Lib Dems voted for the rise in tuition fees but David Cameron must think it’s Christmas as the Lib Dems are taking the blame for all of the governments decisions that are unpopular and the Labour party are attacking the minority Lib Dems not the Tories.

  2. Jamie Kirkwood

    I am not too impressed with your article. The VAT secret bombshell was no secret. The Labour Party was warning about the Tories planning this before the election. People should know from the 80’s that anything the Tories say should NEVER be believed. Being a third year Politics student you should be very aware that the term Liberal encompasses many features such as the free market and little interference from government. I recommend you look over your political ideologies again as examined in first year. It comes as no surprise to me that the Liberals have revealed their true colours as Tory lovers. There really is no hope for this country if a 3rd year politics student could not even see this. The U.K is doomed to suffer rule from three pathetic political parties with the occasional respite of suffering just a little less when Labour come into power. Why can?t people realise that there are other political parties and options?

  3. Jamie Kirkwood

    Responding to Charley. The VAT will have an impact on the poorest households most because It means out of all the purchases made an extra 2.5% less money will be available to them. So now instead of £17.50 of every hundred it will be £20. When someone is working on the minimum wage taking home less than £700 a month this is a lot. The extra 10 or 20 pound a month at the least lost can make all the difference. It effects the economy because it means those who live from month to month pay wise, will buy less because there money won?t go as far and this accumulates nationwide which means growth falls because people have less spending power which means jobs are lost because shops are selling less etc etc vicious cycle! So 2.5% matters quite a lot.

  4. Charley

    I can see where Claire is coming from but I votied Lib Dem and I’m still as passionate about them as I ever was. I certainly know that the opinion of a number of Lib Dems I know is “we may be in a coalition with them but they’re still the enemy” I’ve always been a happy mixture of cyincal idealist… which generally leads to me dropping in fairly close to the realist camp. I and anyone else with half a brain realised it would take an impossible swing to get the lib dems in on their own and it would have to be a swing from Labour and the Conservatives whereas what we got was a swing from Labour but not from the Conservatives. Nck always said he would seek to form a coalition with the party with the popular vote/most seats so anyone who claims to feel betrayed is lying, ridiculously naive or stupid when they say they didn’t expect a Lib Dem/Conservative coalition because it was obvious virtually from the outset that it wasn’t going to be Labour by any manner of means. I hate the Conservative party, always have an always will but the current government is managing to do a lot of things I am very much in favour of – scrapping ID cards, stopping the detention of minor migrants, the recent announcement they they are looking at scrapping ASBO’s, the increase in the personal allowance for tax, protection of low paid public sector workers from pay freezes. Even the increase in VAT doesn’t overly bother me and it’s unlikely to bother most people very much I didn’t really notice much change in my cost of living when it went from 17.5% to 15% or when it changed back and I doubt I’ll notice much difference when it goes to 20% because I simply don’t spend the kind of money at which 2.5% becomes a noticable total. I dare say someone who is furnising an entire home all at one or buying a brand new car will notice it but there we go. As for the cuts there were always going to be cuts whoever got in and agin only the naive or daft didn’t expect that. There are some cuts I don’t agree with but there are many more that I do.

  5. Bernard of Clairvaux

    It is becoming rather tiresome to read the condescension proferred in instances such as this by individuals who hold to the assumption that a necessary – even urgent – reduction in public expenditure in order to deal with the deficit, and for that matter the national debt, could, also of necessity, equate solely with the plan the Coalition government proposes. This is simply not the case. A large body of economic opinion – led by Krugman, Stiglitz, Blanchflower, Skidelsky and others – stridently condemns it. Similarly wearisome is the monotonous charge that Cameron and Clegg are taking the ‘hard’ decisions for the ‘grown-ups’. They are not. They are taking them to satiate the latest fetish of the markets. The very fact that there is a strong possibility that this amorphous and notoriously unpredictable sector might punish us in any case should growth be weak stands as testament to the profound danger of allowing such a myopic perspective to dominate our public discourse. True national maturity would be reflected in a robust debate, acknowledging the fallibility of all sides. Ms. McWethy contributes to this, by excellently articulating the feelings of many thousands. Those who trenchantly criticise this position do so, it seems, according to the notion that students are naive and credulous, because they expect their politicians to act according to their public statements, and hold them to account accordingly. Perhaps we should all reflect on the implications of that, rather than simply condemning youthful idealism.

  6. D Murphy

    I agree

  7. DannyM

    This is the best article ever written by anyone anywhere

  8. Chas

    As a (mature) undergraduate I am not in the least surprised that the political party that consistently spurns the real world finds such strong support from students, that large block of young adult voters who do not live in the real world. Firstly, going back to university after a career of nearly 30 years, I am amazed at the lack of interest, engagement, and frankly of understanding of politics among university students. And this is borne out by the naive enthusiasm we saw in their support of the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg grabbed the unique opportunity that the ‘prime ministerial’ debates on television presented to him to reach a large audience with platitudinous messages of ‘fairness’, ‘change’, ‘new politics’, and ‘the old’ parties versus his ‘new’ party. For those of us who have followed politics for the last 30 years or more, there was absolutely nothing new in this Liberal message. The Liberals have always had a cynical and self-serving policy of constitutional change including proportional representation which no one else wants, because the rest of us recognise that PR is not actually ‘fair’ – we would always end up with a government that no one voted for, cobbled together behind closed doors; the fundamental link between constituents and their constituency MP would either be broken completely or fundamentally weakened; and most, if not all MPs, would be party placemen rather than local candidates, locally chosen. So students saw nice, smilling Mr Clegg on the pre-election telly debates and thought, “He looks nice; why haven’t I ever heards of him or the Liberal Democrats before? I like all this ‘hopey-changey’ thing, it sounds just like that nice Mr Obama in America.” By the way, he’s not very popular over there, either. And they all voted Lib Dem without any thought of the consequences. By now, many students will have learned that the Liberals are in fact the oldest political party in the country(not the newest as nice Mr Clegg would have you believe). They mopped up the dying Social Democrats some time in the late 1980s and amended their name. But they are still the Liberal Party and have been the third political party in Britain since 1924. If you vote for them you must reconise two things: one is that under our current system, they could only ever be in government as a small minority partner in a coalition with Labour or the Conservatives. The second is that this is what they want to enshrine forever in our constitution by changing our system to proportional representation. Therefore if you vote Liberal Democrat, you should expect to be in permanent opposition, whistling in the wind. The BEST you could possibly hope for, is to form a coalition, which in most cases would be with the Conservatives, since they win more elections that Labour. And if the Liberals prevail in their desire for a referendum and they win that vote, Liberal Democrats will live forever in coalition administrations, abandoning whatever principles they may feel they have, alternately to their left and to their right, doing the bidding of successive Labour and Conservative governments in order to keep those majority parties in power. Occasionally they will be offered minor concessions by the majority partner in a bid to keep coalitions together, and then their leader can shout triumphantly that whatever ‘radical’ new policy they have championed (which around 80% of the electorate had rejected at the ballot box) was only possible because they were in the governing coalition. I am sorry if this bursts a few vestigial bubbles of political idealism among students still wedded to some dopey notion of ‘new politics’, but what Mr Clegg was really offering you is precisely what you have got, and moreover he wants to make this situation permanent so that he can prostitute himself and his party at every election to the largest party, which, under a proportional system, would struggle to form a majority administration on their own, and would need to rely on the Liberals to do so. Welcome to the ‘real politics’.

  9. Sam

    Who is this ‘we’? I’m afraid that I was overjoyed at the result of the election, and continue to be so. I understand (and I hope many other students will as well) that our country is in hundreds of billion pounds worth of debt; that the legacy of a Labour government has left us with no hope of paying that off without drastic cuts due to the hundred-and-something billion pound deficit. On what planet would this situation be solved by giving money to people?? The planned loan to industry in Sheffield was planned by Labour a few months before the elections. It was a wonderful thing to put on their manifesto that they would (conveniently) not be responsible for undertaking if they lost the election – and if they won, well, they didn’t seem keen to curb their spending while their last term lasted. Nick Clegg and David Cameron have taken a brave and exciting step into co-operative politics. They have not compromised themselves in forming this coalition, they have instigated a new and more mature politics: personally, I wish them every success.

  10. alice Waite

    As a voter since 1966 I can support Clare’s opening quote ‘idealism is what precedes experience, cynicism is what follows’. Sadly, in my experience idealism promotes rigidity, marginalization and counter productive action affecting “the others”. Political passion I have found is always a partner of idealism, until the responsibility of Government introduces economic reality. To deny this reality for the popular vote leads to political, economic, and social corruption. This period in British political history in my view is the most exciting opportunity for decades, to attempt to represent the majority of the voting population. A coalition, as other commentators on Clare’s article, have identified, is a co-operative venture, demanding compromise, adjustment and adapting the ideals held by the parties involved. Cynics might believe that the LIb Dems have compromised their ideals for power, others, I count myself in this group, believe that both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives have taken enormous risks, one being the loss of support of their more idealistic supporters. Some of the risks will be unknown in these uncharted political waters. A famous quote from the founder of Politics could have been uttered for this very moment in our political history. “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”? Niccolo Machiavelli,The Prince (1532). I have great hopes for these two brave Men, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, their personal ability to share, to anticipate problems and be prepared to take on their own supporters for the better good of the Nation is commendable. The Political, economic and social times we are in demand leaders who are prepared to make the hard decisions, not seeking to be liked or thinking only of a second or even third term in power, by offering “sweeties” to the “children”. The voting population of this Country are being treated as grown-ups, who fully understand that running a Country is like running a business or a home, we must live within our means, and ensure the cash flow, whilst taking care of the basic needs of our people until the economic position enables expansive spending. “The problems are basic, the solutions are difficult. Idealism is blind to the views of others, cynicism is born of disappointment, but I have great hopes that reality is honest.

  11. Paul Seabrook

    One of the core policies of the Liberal Democrats is the push for a better and more fair voting system as First Past the Post was well suited to the electorate in the past but is no longer adequate. It is obvious that the voting system that the Liberal Democrats prefer the most, Proportional Representation, will usually involve cooperation between various parties to form an effective government. This is the basis of my first criticism of Ms McWethy, specifically ?they have sacrificed everything to ride on the Tories’ coat-tails?. A party that believes so strongly in a form of government that requires cooperation needs to be able to show that this is not just words. After the General Election results were known it was obvious that no one had an overall majority. It was also obvious that there were only three possible routes. The first would be for the Tories to form a minority government, presenting a problem as it would not be able to effectively govern. The second was to call a second General Election. This would have been a landslide for the Tories as neither Labour or the Liberal Democrats had enough money to fight another campaign. It would have also frozen for a few months any economic response to the debt problem we face. The last option was for some form of coalition. Given the results of the election it would have been possible for a coalition between any of the three main parties to be formed. In the real world a Labour-Tory coalition would be near impossible given the decades of rivalry so the practical options were either a Labour-Lib Dem coalition or a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. In the end a Labour-Lib Dem coalition was not possible for various reasons, not least vocal disagreement from Labour about such a deal. So the Liberal Democrats were left with a choice: to form a coalition with the Tories or to not. Were they not, they would have first and foremost shown that for all the talk on a fairer election system, they were only willing to form a coalition with the left, shattering any credibility on voting reform. It was therefore necessary for the sake of voting reform to try and form government (this is of course assuming that all Lib Dem voters are on the ‘left’ end of the arbitrary political scale, something that isn’t true) My Second criticism is with the cuts we are now facing. I’m going to be blunt here: every party was going to cut. The Liberal Democrats said they would cut, as did Labour and the Tories. Sure there were minor differences in where exactly the cuts would fall, but each party would cut services. The thing about coalitions between the right and left is that the extreme policies on both sides are cancelled out. We got a rise in VAT, but we also got an extra £1,000 in income tax allowance, to eventually rise to £10,000 tax free for every worker. That is not the only compromise made between the coalition as can be seen by the coalition agreement. What it also has to be remembered, going back to an earlier point, is had the Lib Dems not gone into a coalition there would have been another general election called not so far off, one which the Tories would have won. I am content knowing that the Liberal influence on the Tories has stopped this budget from being even more extreme than it is. Lastly, I am a Lib Dem voter, this was my first time voting in a general election along with a string of Lib Dem voters I know. Hardly any of us regret that choice, we understand that cuts were necessary, and the price paid with more extreme cuts in places will be worth it to win a better voting system. Sure there are those who regret their choice of vote (the fall to 15% approval reflects this I suppose, though with such a small sample size and weird weightings it’s hard to be certain), there always are, but they are not in the majority.

  12. Martin

    Unfortunately I must agree that the LD CON coalition was the only viable option no matter how contentious this is. I could ramble on about how Labour consistently let us down when we needed them however this is neither the time, nor the place so I will leave it that I hope their election results have taught them a lesson. I don?t think Mr. Clegg made this decision lightly and I don?t think anyone envies his position. Like you I found it hard to grit my teeth when Mr. Clegg and Mr. Cameron stood together outside No. 10 but now is not the time to air our discontent. The lib dems are in the best position they?ve been in for decades (in partial power!). This coalition means that some liberal policies have to go on the back burner either because we can?t afford it or because the tories have to have their share as well (or both). Mr. Clegg is providing long overdue common sense into our system for example scrapping the ID cards scheme. If we abandon our only chance to get things done we will look back with hindsight and kick our selves. More over the next generation will never forgive us. I will continue to support the lib dems and as long as the tories don?t run riot with their cuts.

  13. ~S

    What utter bollocks. The Lib Dems were the only party that *went into* the election promising “Savage Cuts”- quite a fuss was made at the time, as I recall. People bemoaning their being in coalition miss the point completely- it was very much a choice between another five years of being stepped on and five years of at least *some* Liberal policies entering Government. The Lib Dems’ plummeting poll ratings stand as testament only to the power of the Labour PR machine- Alastair Campbell’s positively rubbing his hands with glee as the public conveniently suspends their capacity for reason. It’s no different to the absurd calls for Brown to go on the grounds of his being “unelected”- very much a creation of the Conservative PR machine, prompting people to let their memories of voting Labour in 2005 slide away with the man’s popularity. People knew full well that Blair was going to step down at an early point in their third term in favour of Brown- indeed, people knew full well how our electoral system works. The media’s indignant wailing at Clegg’s staggering decision to do exactly what he’d been saying he’d do for months is depressing to watch.

  14. PBH

    I don’t want to criticize the quality of the article (which people above have rightly praised), I simply think that you’ve missed the rationale behind the coalition. You claim that the Lib Dem’s entering into coalition was a cynical move, where they ‘sacrificed everything to ride on the Tories’ coat-tails’; you present it as a rejection of ideals. However, the pragmatic thing for the Lib Dems to have done would have been to let the Conservatives form a minority and hope they collapsed in a wave of unpopularity over cuts to public spending. Instead, the Lib Dems chose to take the risk of entering into a potentially toxic relationship with the Conservatives. Why? Because they were desperate for power? This seems to be the view you are taking (apologies if I am misrepresenting you). It seems, however, that entering into coalition was in fact a very idealistic move. Of course, being in coalition requires compromise and the Lib Dems had to compromise most as they are the minor partner (as one Lib Dem said, people have to remember that they lost the election). However, most supporters of the Lib Dems support their policy of PR; by signing up to the Lib Dems you are, then, essentially signing up to coalitions. Far from being a mercenary grab for power, the coalition is a responsible working out of the Lib Dems ideals. To criticize the Lib Dems for this suggests you haven’t quite grasped the nature of the “new politics” that you felt the Lib Dems stood for.

  15. dm

    As ‘TS’ states,

  16. AG

    A great piece of Article from Claire. Before the General Election, the policies of the tories and the liberals were totally dissimilar. To be honest there were more similarities between labour and the lib dem. So, i was shocked to hear that the lib dem have back-stabbed their voters and tradition. Nick Clegg boasting before the election that the tory cuts will effectively worsen the recession and that spending our way out is the best policy, has now done a U-TURN. SHAME ON YOU NICK PEGGED

  17. Jim Crawford

    This really shows how detached from reality lib dem voters are… we have run out of money, every informed journal on earth demanded a tory government because they were the only ones likely to tackle the defecit effectivly… the liberals, after people actually got a look at their policies, bombed… and labour were rejected wholeheartedly… they did worse then they did under Foot for christ sake! The only realistic thing the libs could do was make an alliance with the tories. Anyone suggesting otherwise perpetuates the stereotype of the ill-informed student.

  18. Christopher Crawford

    I agree wholeheartedly with Claire. I am mature student so I have voted before. I have nearly always voted SNP (as I am in Scotland) and occasionally Labour. I am ashamed and rather embarrassed to say I voted for the Liberal Democrats this time. If in my wildest nightmares did I think that they would go into coalition with a party with which they have very little in common I would never have done so. If they had gone into coalition with a left of centre party or parties then I could have understood it, but not the Conservatives. Ughh!!! I shall never vote Liberal Democrat again. The CON DEMS may be in power but students should not forget what the Liberal Democrats have done and never be so taken in again (that applies to me too!).

  19. Ben

    It’s all very well being disillusioned with the LD’s support of the Tory Party but realistically there is only one thing that keeps them in the coalition and that is electoral reform. They have to secure this change and the only way they can do this is by being part of the government (as distasteful as it may be to LD supporters like myself). My prediction is that the coalition will not survive for long once the voting reforms have been passed and that Cameron’s cohorts know this and will drag their feet over the matter for as long as they can. Until then supporters of the LD’s will have to grit their teeth and keep their faith…

  20. Jamie P.

    Someone give Ms McWethy a job at the UK’s top newspapers–they desperately need her. She is clearly a promising writer and political analyst that uses her mind–not her writer’s vanity–to compose a well-informed an interesting article. Anyone else notice the lows to which typical British journalists go in order to inject unecessary, droll tidbits of dry humour into supposedly serious news articles? Bravo, Claire, this country needs you!

  21. TS

    As a student who voted LD, I fail to connect with what Claire writes. What the polls predicted was a surge in LD support, especially from younger voters. As it turned out, this largely failed to materialise. Nevertheless, it was unrealistic to expect that the Lib Dems could ever have influence without forming a coalition, and so I voted LD knowing I was voting for a coalition. Incidentally, this is how I wish every election could be – true PR will lead to us voting for actual representation rather than for a single ruling party. All in all, Labour weren’t in a position to form a coalition, and another immediate election would have damaged the LDs even more. So whilst I don’t agree with what the tories are doing, this is the nature of democracy, and I’m pleased for democracy’s sake. I take solace in the fact that some LD policies are clearly being conceded, and perhaps are putting a check on axe-wielding conservative policy.

  22. Jessica Chan

    Great article – for a good few months, I thought that the liberal students had completely ignored Clegg’s ‘deal made with the devil’ (I voted Tory and was completely surprised there wasn’t more anger). The huge media flurry around Clegg leading up to the election materialised into nothing, the Lib Dems lost seats and no-one (prominent, at least) seemed to express a huge amount of anger. Clegg has definitely sold his liberal ideologies down the river for a bit of power and there seems to have been no backlash from his supporters who voted him in to keep Cameron out. Seems he copped a good deal whilst leaving his voters out to dry. I hate to hear that LD students have become disillusioned – surely not from politics all together? My instinct is that although some may express a bit of discontent and disillusionment, many will see the coalition as a pathway into policy reform (perhaps some may even think they are ‘using’ the Conservatives!), but what many will fail to realise is that Clegg has not stood up for the ideas that people voted him in for and will continue to live in fantasy.