A detailed look at all things Liberal Democrats, following on from an earlier blogpost.
One of the core principles of the Liberal Democrats is that of voting reform – ideally moving from a first past the post system to proportional representation. One of the criticisms of the latter is that it inevitably means coalition governments. Italy is regularly referred to in some political circles of what happens when PR goes wrong. Prior to the Berlusconi era, Italy since 1945 had one unstable government after another.
Because voting reform is so central – and possibly the defining policy of the Liberal Democrats, they have to demonstrate that coalition government works. If they cannot do that, the key pillar for their existence crumbles.
The Coalition Agreement
Being inside the system at the time of the 2010 election was a frustrating, exciting and worring time. Frustrating because I could not publicly go out and about following the campaigns; exciting to see what was happening all around, genuinely not knowing whether a government would be formed or whether we would have to go back to the polls; and worrying because each of the three parties had committed to a large programme of public sector cuts. Our permanent secretary at the time said we were going to get a kicking whoever was returned. And at the time, few people did.
At the time, it was widely regarded that the Liberal Democrats got one over the Tories when it came to the content of the Coalition Agreement. In Nick Clegg’s team were David Laws and Chris Huhne who had business experience of negotiating in the commercial sector. The Conservatives on the other hand sent in cerebral but political types to do their negotiations. One of the reasons why so many Liberal Democrat policies ended up in the agreement. On the other hand Cameron had moved the Conservatives away from the more extreme ends of his political party that you could observe that there’s very little to differentiate between Orange Book Lib Dems, One Nation Tories and New Labour Blairites.
The loss of key MPs
The Liberal Democrats lost four high profile MPs at the 2010 election. Dr Evan Harris, Lembit Opik (who follows Puffles – **Woo hoo!!** as Puffles would say), Susan (now Baroness) Kramer, BBC Question Time regular Julia Goldsworthy (now Danny Alexander’s special adviser in the Treasury – hence why she’s disappeared completely from public life: Rules on special advisers mean the latter cannot speak publicly on behalf of ministers). Three of those (Harris, Kramer and Goldsworthy) were possibly ministerial material. Opik was one of those Parliamentarians who regularly showed up on the floor of the House & on bill & select committees. This is the essential but seldom-recognised work that those Parliamentarians do. I imagine having those three as ministers would have given the Liberal Democrat ministerial team greater political weight than it currently has.
Liberal Democrats lose on voting reform
Essentially Nick Clegg wanted to cash the cheque that was the commitment to a referendum on voting reform. It was a catastrophe for him because having secured that commitment in the Coalition Agreement, he effectively squandered it my misjudging the timing of that referendum. Had he played for a much longer term strategy, he could have tied the referendum into the 2015 general election that – tuition fees and NHS reform aside, led to a much closer result on the assumption that the fallout from the public spending cuts might have subsided.
Tuition fees come to town
The evolution of university policy has been an exercise of both political shrewdness & political cowardice. I said as much in Fees, universities and philanthropy. If you don’t want to take the blame for an unpopular but what you think is a ‘necessary’ policy, you commission an ‘independent’ review to report just after an election. This was done repeatedly with fees – Major did it with the Ron Dearing report in 1996/97, Labour did it themselves in 2010. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour would set out their policies in advance of the vote (preferring only to commit to studying Lord Browne’s (stupendously underfunded) report in detail) – hence why the Liberal Democrats (scenting political blood) went after the student vote & the pledge to scrap fees.
Not surprisingly, when Browne recommended much higher fees – & when the Coalition broadly went along with it, there was uproar. But Cable (who’s body language screamed “I hate myself for doing this!”) and Willets followed one of the first rules of government which is to get your unpopular stuff out of the way first. I think a more confident set of ministers would have said that the review in itself was flawed – compare the research budget for the review with the amount of money that the review would affect along with the number of (young) people whose lives will be changed as a result. They should have scrapped it and started again. But the Conservatives being the majority coalition partner won the day. Clegg himself will have seen this as a test of his & his ministers’ credibility. They had to show to the Conservatives that they could take the tough decisions. They also had to show themselves that they could make coalition government work – coming back to first principles of the Lib Dems. If the Coalition collapsed on fees, there would have been wider fallout – remember this was at the time when Labour were still reeling from election defeat & had only just elected a new leader.
Welfare reform and the NHS
Both these two are inter-related because of the disabilities issues that are intertwined. The narrative feels like the nice cuddly Liberal Democrats are there to stop the horrible Tories doing nasty things to the poor and the weak. Hence people getting angry when the former fail to stop the latter. It’s a well-rehearsed argument: “Vote Labour to stop the Tories getting back in. Stick with the Liberal Democrats because we’re trying to stop the Tories from within government from doing nasty stuff to you” And some have played on this “it could be worse if it was the Tories alone governing” theme to justify whatever unpopular policy is in the news that day.
Disability campaigners in particular have mobilised using social media in a manner that was unthinkable even a decade ago. I dare say it has politicised a number of them, though what the impact of that politicisation is remains to be seen. Given Labour’s proposals for welfare reform, it’s not automatic that people will migrate en masse to Miliband’s ranks.
As for the disaster that is the Health and Social Care Bill (which I blogged about here), it’s beginning to turn into a nightmare for the Liberal Democrats. My take is that there have been so many changes to the Bill that as a piece of legislation alone it needs to go back to the drawing board. This is separate to the other issues of huge hostility from those who will be delivering the changes (the professions), the lack of piloting and the significant and growing opposition from beyond political types. It would take a very brave minister to admit they had got things badly wrong, apologise & (if not forced out) try again. Things don’t look good for Lansley – who used to be my local MP. As far as calibre of ministers go, my personal take is that the ministerial team in that department is utterly lacking. (If they were competent there wouldn’t be nearly as much opposition to their proposals).
Things are not looking good for the Liberal Democrats on NHS reforms either. I called out the switch in votes by my local MP Julian Huppert through Puffles, inviting him to clarify why the change. His response to Puffles is here, with a wider explanation on his website here. The 2012 Liberal Democrat Spring Conference brought into sharp focus the huge split between Liberal Democrat leadership and wider party. The party leadership avoided the debate on whether to support dropping the Health and Social Care Bill, but what will the wider fallout be? All eyes will be on the debate in the Commons on 13 March as Labour table a motion calling for the Bill to be dropped. A three-line-whip will see that Labour’s motion fails. Conservative MPs plus Liberal Democrat Ministers voting against it will see to that.
The enactment of the Bill won’t be the end of it. Over the next three years there will be the political fireball of implementing the changes. There will be lots of devils in the secondary legislation – with lots of Parliamentary debates on those that could have publicity similar to that of the tuition fees vote. That was passed under powers granted in Labour’s Higher Education Act 2004. I imagine there will be more than a few votes (with the surrounding publicity) that will make things very uncomfortable for the Liberal Democrats over the next three years before the next general election.
Long term impact?
On tuition fees and NHS reforms the Liberal Democrats will inevitably take some sort of a kicking. That’s not to say Labour will automatically pick up those votes. The 2015 election will bring into much sharper focus the individual and local credentials of candidates because of social media. There will be more users, networks will be wider, deeper and more mature, and how the ‘divorce’ between the Conservatives & Liberal Democrats takes place remains to be seen. What will the conventions be around Cabinet discussions? Will there be a temptation to leak for party-political gain in the run-up to the next election?
The Liberal Democrats will have a record to defend at the next election – a completely different place to be from all of its previous ones since 1979. How many people will judge them on their record? Their manifesto? Their leadership? The calibre of the candidate standing locally? The party is living in interesting times…