In my recent piece on LDV, a fairly gentle poke at the rebranding of the opposition, two themes emerged from those with opposing views. They can be summed up as ‘Why don’t you lot ever disagree with the Tories’ and ‘get your own house in order first’.
Well you know, I think they have a point.
Even as a strong supporter of the coalition, I’d long disagreed with the ‘not a cigarette paper between us‘ approach to government. We get tarred with policy we don’t agree with, get no credit for Lib Dem inspired legislation, and fail to build up any base for ‘what we believe, and what we did to make it happen’ amongst the electorate ahead of the next general election. Yes we need to be seen as strong partners in government, not warring factions, but this doesn’t mean total acquiescence from both sides to absolutely everything.
And now I think things are changing for the better. Lib Dem voices are cropping up everywhere asking pertinent questions about government policy.
Before Christmas there was talk of a general loosening in the ‘we stand as one on everything’ platform. Last week Malcolm Bruce, in his role as chair of the International Development Committee, was excellent in taking the department to task for spending development money on the Pope’s visit to the UK. Simon Hughes has obviously been taking a long hard look at the abolition of EMA. Sarah Teather campaigns to keep libraries open (even if she was misquoted when calling on her constituents to empty the shelves of books). Tim Farron marches through Grizedale Forest (with MP’s from all sides). Today The Guardian quotes a ComRes poll showing a majority of Lib Dem MP’s oppose many of the NHS reforms. All small signs that blanket approval of everything proposed is not going to happen, and there are many more as well.
Of course, most (not all) of these noises are made by back benchers. I’d like to see something of a relaxing of the principal of collective responsibility to allow members of the government to say more of what they think. In the era of new, grown up politics, when we can have a whole PMQs without it turning into a shouting match, shouldn’t we trust our politicians to all openly debate and disagree? Coalition politics is new to us all, and we need to get used to the idea that we can be in government and still have the odd falling out.
And by doing this we build credibility in our beliefs, are in a better position to take ownership of policies inspired by Liberal Democrat philosophy and we begin to reshape our own position in the eyes of the electorate.
Since originally writing this piece of course we’ve seen Lord Oakeshott speaking his mind and leaving the front bench ‘by mutual consent’. While we can debate the ins and outs of should he have gone or not, the very fact that he was willing to say what he thought is another sign of our increasing willingness to let people know where we stand.