The McCanns, the Dowlers, and the Gurkhas threatened with deportation are ordinary people thrown into exceptional situations, their lives tossed from one side to the other not just by fate but, like ‘cargo’, to be exploited for cash and credit by the powerful and the acquisitive.
Liberal Democrats in general and Nick Clegg in particular have always been at their best when standing shoulder to shoulder with ordinary people against a conniving, power-hoarding Establishment, be that Fleet Street, corrupt local officials, or self serving bureaucracies. That was the message that connected him to a huge audience watching the first PM debate in Manchester in 2010. Briefly, he was the Leader of the anti-Establishment.
On Wednesday, having read and been briefed by his advisers on an early copy of the Leveson Report, he sent a request to the Speaker of the House of Commons to seek a dispensation to speak from the Treasury bench against the Prime Minister. There symbolically he stood, shoulder-to-shoulder with those who have been abused by a corrupt media and ignored by corrupt officials: for the first time since Manchester, side-by-side in spirit with all those who have lost confidence and trust in ‘the powers that be’.
There are now only 20,000 hours to rescue the Liberal Democrats as a force for good in a blighted and benighted Britain. Sending that messenger to the Speaker, breaking that convention of Cabinet Government, fashioning a new mechanism better suited to Coalition Government than the 2010 tactic of trying to suggest Coalition was a special partnership, was a first belated act in the reform of British politics. You cannot change the voting system, or reform the House of Lords until you have reformed the mechanics of a Commons in which no single Party has a majority. Fitting a Coalition into a system of collective responsibility that protects Prime Ministerial power was the great error from which many further errors stemmed.
So – the psychological mould is broken and the arches of Parliament have not come crashing down. As Roland wrote in a comment here, our Leader put ‘into practice a tried and tested Quaker practice, that allows all views to be aired, before work starts on building a consensual solution’. All issues, all initiatives should start with the Liberal Democrats setting out our position publically before negotiations begin so that the public is in no doubt where we would stand if we had had a majority.
The process would enable us to involve and consult before we took a position, to campaign in our communities for our solution, to report on progress in negotiations and to ‘own’ and share credit with those who campaigned with us when we win and to pledge to continue the fight if we lose. It would return us to our campaigning heart.
It would mean that we utilise every remaining hour to press for Liberal Democrat policies, refined not immediately by mediation with the Conservatives but in dialogue with ordinary people placed by fortune in exceptional positions, be that through unemployment, poor health, crime, unfairness, abuse of power or restriction of opportunity.
Be fearful; in Rotherham, Middlesbrough and Croydon very few people thought that it was us who stood at their shoulder.
* Bill le Breton is a former Chair and President of ALDC and a member of the 1997 and 2001 General Election teams