In 2010, the Labour Party was pushed out of government, and the Conservatives joined forces with the Liberal Democrats to take power. The conventional, if misleading, transatlantic analogy is that of Labour to the Democrats and the Conservatives to the Republicans. What, then, is the Liberal Democrat Party?

A mooncalf formulation. Fag-end descendent of Whigs, anti-trade-union social democrats, free-traders, social liberals, beachcombing disparate inspirations. The rightward lurch of the Labour Party under Blair allowed the LibDems to accrete a certain sheen. Which tarnished at astounding rate when they became part of the ConDem government – such a pitch-perfect portmanteau – signing up to and off on a Thatcherite agenda, privatisation in the health service, cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance that helped lower-income school students, undermining comprehensive education in state schools by pushing selection, the siphoning off of preferred pupils, creating a zero-sum game among proliferating local schools, attacking any nominal agenda of universalism. Melissa Benn, educationalist, calls the model ‘rigid centralization with widespread privatisation’. They tore up a promise not to increase university tuition fees. That last in particular helped radicalise a wave of students whose protests in 2010 started the backlash that, with fits and starts, continues. 

Today the default demeanour of the LibDem politician is chippy defensiveness, plus/minus shame. Their left wing performs its lachrymosity and discomfort, their rugged pro-marketeers – like Deputy Prime Minister and party leader Nick Clegg – mutter about hard choices. Betrayal as machismo. Once a soi-disant progressive alternative, now they are Tory-enablers.

The economy toilets. Prices rise during a hecatomb of services. Libraries are closing. Social services are slashed. ’What else’, laments the front page of the Kilburn Times, ‘is left for them to cut?’


There’s strife beyond the public sector. Several days after the strike, electricians working for the construction company Balfour Beatty walk out in protest against aggressive new contracts. People are fighting to stand still, whatever line of work they’re in.

‘There are clients that maybe I don’t particularly like the sound of [...] really bossy and pushy,’ Sabina says. ‘[N]ow I’d be more likely to consider clients like that.’ Sabina has been a sex worker in the capital for 20 years. ‘What’s happened in the last, maybe, 4 or 5 years is [...] that more women are going into prostitution, and also women who left are going back, because they find it hard to make ends meet. [...] What are our options? How are we supposed to survive?’

Some troubles are unique, of course, and very serious, for women in this sector. ‘I know two women who’ve been raided, lost their places and are now working outdoors. ... [T]hat’s a lot more dangerous [...] It’s absolutely the last resort. But the raids and the whole kind of crackdown on prostitution are driving women to work on their own.’

Other troubles of these parlous times are more familiar. ‘[P]etrol costs have gone up. Parking in London is horrendous.’ A universal jeremiad. ‘We sex workers are just like everybody else.’ Sabina speaks with the patience of someone who has explained this many times before. ‘You know, we’re trying to keep ourselves and our families together.’

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china mieville

A shorter version of this essay was published in the New York Times Magazine, on 4 March 2012.