Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis

Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

July 27, 2017
6 min read

Vince Cable with David Cameron during the coalition
Like Theresa May before him, Vince Cable has just been elected leader of his party unopposed. But since this is the Lib Dems, it has attracted little interest from just about anyone.

However, given the (slim) possibility of a Liberal Democrat resurgence, it is worth briefly looking at Cable’s politics and his record.

In contrast to his predecessor Tim Farron, Cable is less likely to be plagued with accusations of homophobia – though he was a late convert to equal marriage, arguing that civil partnerships were sufficient, and was absent from a vote in 2014 to extend it to members of the armed forces.

In any case, for a party trying to resurrect itself, Vince Cable represents an obvious dead end. Far from a new start, he was at the heart of the Lib Dems throughout the 2000s and their subsequent fall from grace as a chief architect of the 2010-15 coalition government.

One of the originators and enablers of seven years of austerity, he can hardly be called a standard-bearer for progressive politics.

Cable’s confusion

The issues don’t end there. During Cable’s leadership campaign, if campaign is even the right word, he asserted that sexism and racism are essentially over.

Speaking to the New Statesman, he argued that ‘gender isn’t an issue anymore’ and that ‘thanks to Obama, race isn’t really an issue anymore’. For a party which prides itself on its liberalism and its sense of social justice, this attitude is a total disaster.

In a political system where the highest echelons are still occupied by white men (like Cable), while female and ethnic minority politicians are targeted for abuse, gender and race are evidently still barriers.

For a politician who tries to make political capital out of his understanding of economics, Cable as a history of being remarkably confused about what he believes in. He has described himself as both an ‘open market’ liberal and a social democrat – symptomatic, perhaps, of the Lib Dems’ inability to ever pick a side.

At the height of the recession, Cable opted to both castigate Gordon Brown for using quantitiative easing, and at the same time argue it was the only practical option to stimulate the economy. Despite warning against the economics of large public sector cuts during the 2010 general election campaign, he took office as part of the coalition government and then made those same cuts, now claiming they were economically necessary.

There is a darker side, too, to Cable’s record as an economist. He was chief economist at Shell in the 1990s – the period during which the oil firm was linked to the killing of prominent Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa. At such a high level in the company, would he have had no knowledge of this? Cable has never since criticised Shell on this or any other issue.

Cable in government

The cuts to health, education, welfare and local government that Cable enabled did huge damage, especially to working class communities, and contributed to Britain’s current economic stagnation. On top of this, Cable’s record in government includes voting for the bedroom tax, against raising benefits, to cut welfare spending and in favour of the Tories’ attacks on the NHS.

One of Tim Farron’s greatest advantages was his ability to distance himself from the travesties of the coalition government, having never been a minister in it. Cable, on the other hand, was at the centre of Cameron and Osborne’s austerity project and its disastrous effect on public services and wages. Without the input of Clegg, Cable and the rest of the right wing ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dem faction, David Cameron may have never become prime minister at all.

As Business Secretary, Sir Vince was responsible for selling off Royal Mail, a privatisation which even Thatcher thought was a step too far. And not only did Cable force through a privatisation opposed by both the public and Royal Mail’s staff, but he was responsible for postal service being sold off at a drastically lower value than its real worth.

At this year’s election the Liberal Democrats made an effort to pursue the youth vote, but Cable is an ardent defender of tuition fees and hardly has a history of speaking up for the young. He has fiercely defended the coalition’s decision to triple student fees and recently labelled Labour’s current stance on the issue as ‘a cheap populist gesture’.

Cable’s road to nowhere

The issue of employment tribunal fees is a good illustration of the problems Cable will have as Lib Dem leader. Yesterday the Lib Dems welcomed Unison’s court case overturning the fees. But it was Vince Cable as business secretary who introduced them, saying at the time that ‘First and foremost we want to reduce the number of tribunals happening’ – which is exactly the reason the supreme court found the fees unjust.

Sir Vince has come a long way since his days as a Labour councillor in Glasgow, but that journey has not been the making of a progressive politician, but rather the steady unwinding of both principle and sense, from leaving Labour to join the SDP, to merging into the Liberals and finally ending up as part of a Tory-led government.

There is also a more philosophical question about the Liberal Democrats and their future as a party. Much of the Western world feels as though it is in a time of crisis, as if we are at a political crossroads. When the Liberals and the SDP formed their alliance back in 1981 they outlined a vision that amounted to a ‘third way’ between Bennism and Thatcherism.

Corbyn and May have both overhauled their parties, though May’s overhaul was an electoral disaster. But what do the Liberal Democrats have to say about this crisis of our times? They have thrown up Vince Cable as leader, one of the authors of the crisis itself, and they present no answers.