Should our MPs give Clegg more support in the Commons?

Yesterday Nick Clegg stood up as Deputy Prime Minister in the House of Commons and announced there would be a referendum to reform the voting system within the next year.

If I’d suggested just a few weeks ago that I would be able to type that sentence with a straight face I imagine most folk would think I’d lost any grasp on reality. Yet it’s what happened.

True, the route to Nick becoming Deputy Prime Minister is not proving easy: coalition with the Tories is forcing uncomfortable compromises on the Lib Dems. And true, the alternative vote is not a proportional electoral system.

But, still, yesterday was by any measure an historic day for the Lib Dems and those who have long dreamed of a fairer voting system.

So I was curious to read this account of the proceedings of the House of Commons by Nicholas Watt in the Guardian, headlined Nick Clegg swipes away opponents but receives little support from Liberal Democrats during historic Commons statement:

… Clegg dealt with his opponents with skill. Sadly for him, there was little support from his own party. A mere seven Lib Dem MPs asked him questions during his statement. Of these, only three could be classed as wholly supportive.

Watt goes on to list the seven Lib Dem MPs – all of whom, I should say, made valid points and asked pertinent questions And indeed Simon Hughes made clear his support in a statement:

After 13 years of Labour inaction, Nick Clegg today announced a welcome and major series of progressive political reforms. The coalition Government has decided in one move to give all voters a much greater say in who is chosen to represent them and to give Parliament a much greater say in the business of Government.

“With an easier and more up to date electoral register in the future, the whole of Britain will have a much more representative democracy. We will also end the scandal where votes have been of unequal value and in many places of no value at all – and where many people have scandalously not even been allowed to vote.”

But the impression has been created that Nick cuts a lonely figure in championing the coming referendum – and that is, I think, unfortunate.

To be clear, I am not suggesting for one moment that our MPs become mere cheerleaders for the leadership, burying their doubts and questions, and translating themselves into backbench cannon fodder. No-one who knows Lib Dems would imagine for a moment that such an eventuality could ever happen.

Sometimes, though, the liberal thirst to prove our scepticism and independence can suggest indifference or even hostility. And in the circumstances that’s unfortunate – the vast majority of the Tory party is opposed to Nick’s measures, while this opportunistic tribal Labour party will throw anything and everything at the Coalition in the hope it can cause damage. Nick was ploughing a lonely furrow in the Commons yesterday, and stronger support from Lib Dem MPs would not have been an unreasonable request.

Perhaps the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party had not had opportunity to question Nick on the details of his announcement, and maybe felt bounced. If so, that’s a legitimate issue to be addressed by Lorely Burt, the LDPP’s chair.

We are in an overly-febrile political situation where the stakes are high. It is right that Lib Dem MPs and members hold the leadership to account, and ensure our principles are adhered to and as many of our policies as possible implemented. We should also remember, however, that the leadership is shouldering a heck of a responsibility right now – and support should not be a one-way street.

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34 Comments

  • Andrea Gill 6th Jul '10 - 10:31am

    Well if Conservative back benchers do the same for Cameron, people groan and say it’s toadying, so I am not sure it is a good idea. Surely our back benchers have the same right as the other parties’ to question Nick Clegg on record – if they want to support him, the media might currently be a better outlet.

    Clegg can more than hold his own in the Commons, it’s the media – especially the so called “liberal” guardian – who are currently providing something of a biased view of our party, although much to my surprise even the usually critical blog mentioned in the original article was for once supportive.

  • @Stephen Tail

    I think you have to accept that there are Liberal Democrats, members, activists and even MPs who have grave reservations about the direction of this coalition, though it seems, reading this site, that such people are too frequently dismissed as Labour trolls, said not true members or dismissed with some other ad hominem. Nick may be receiving a bit of that. It doesn’t mean impending Party implosion, its probably just a wariness with the Coalition Project in general, and the strategy for electoral reform in particular.

  • @Andrea Gill

    I think The Guardian is simply reflecting some of the distrust of it’s readership. That’s simply a commercial decision. And surely you weren’t too upset when the bias was leaning towards the Liberal Democrats.

  • It always makes me cringe when Labour or Tory backbenchers stand up to ‘question’ their leaders with a gushing compliment, it’s true. However, until we get sensible PR elections and have this tribal parliamentary system, we have to play by its rules. Lib Dem MPs should give more vocal support to any step in the right direction on electoral reform.

  • Andrea Gill 6th Jul '10 - 10:45am

    @mpg “And surely you weren’t too upset when the bias was leaning towards the Liberal Democrats.”

    No, actually, because the underlying theme was always one of “vote Lib Dem where Tories could win, vote Labour where Labour could win”. The guardian, like Labour, assumed wrongly that we were just some dummy adjunct of the Labour party happy to prop up a failed, wasteful government. That kind of insincere “support” I can do without.

  • @ Andrea Gill: “No, actually, because the underlying theme was always one of “vote Lib Dem where Tories could win, vote Labour where Labour could win”. The guardian, like Labour, assumed wrongly that we were just some dummy adjunct of the Labour party happy to prop up a failed, wasteful government. That kind of insincere “support” I can do without.”

    As someone who often reads the Guardian I think you are caricaturising all of The Guardian’s journalism, with certain aspects of it. The fact is that during the Labour government, The Guardian was constantly highlighting and praising Lib Dem policies and MPs, like Charles Kennedy and pre-election Nick Clegg. It is why the eventual support for the LDs during the election wasn’t a big surprise, the seeds had been laid with The Guardian’s frustrations with the Labour government. In addition, your criticism of the editorial strategy you described above is bizarre, given your support for AV. Isn’t this exactly what voters will be doing, voting for the ‘lesser of several evils’?

  • Andrea Gill 6th Jul '10 - 11:20am

    @mpg – I was referring to the guardian’s endorsement just before the elections :)

    @Liberal Neil: Agree with you on Hancock

  • Martin Land 6th Jul '10 - 11:39am

    Yon know what, I think Nick is quite capable of looking after himself…

  • Andrew Suffield 6th Jul '10 - 11:53am

    I think you have to accept that there are Liberal Democrats, members, activists and even MPs who have grave reservations about the direction of this coalition, though it seems, reading this site, that such people are too frequently dismissed as Labour trolls, said not true members or dismissed with some other ad hominem.

    An observation: we have seen the results from the regular surveys of the actual party members who read this site. They are markedly different to what the Labour people keep posting here about the opinions of party members. It is a reasonable assumption that anybody who shows up just to moan about how Lib Dems are Tories and Tories are Americans and Labour is the One True Way is probably just trolling.

  • I suspect that Simon Hughes will be a ltitle less gushing in his enthusiasm for the Coalition when Southwark is reduced to two MPs, and the boundary is drawn from Crystal Palace up to London Bridge.

  • Sunder Katwala 6th Jul '10 - 12:39pm

    There will be a good deal of Labour support for the AV referendum, though there will be different views. (One reason is that the party did not debate the issue ahead of the 2009 conference: it was a PM and cabinet decision, mostly debated in the newspapers and think-tanks but not much beyond it).

    Many MPs take the view of. say, Stephen Twigg yesterday: they will back the referendum and AV, but challenge other aspects of the bill they disagree with. It is strange to say LibDems should have the right to independent views, but to imply Labour does not. Many other senior figures – like Alan Johnson and John Denham – will be committed to supporting change. The party pressure groups and think-tanks across a broad range of different views tend to be strongly pro-reform – that is true of Compass and Progress, for example.

    I thought it strange that Clegg played to the Tory gallery, and was so partisan in his attacks on Labour yesterday. Unless the LibDems really think they can win this referendum single-handed, it is time to think constructively about alliances, particularly those who can reach crucial voters for turnout (for example, finding supportive trade union voices could be important there).

    So I think it would be a mistake to focus on what at best is likely to be a very small sprinkling of Tory commentariat advocates, when the big battalions will be strongly against.

    And those who want to win the referendum should be looking to build some alliances, surely, as should Labour refomers towards the LibDems.

  • Liberal Neil,

    Mike Hancock (whom I helped elect in 1984) held his seat in May, with a small positive swing in his favour. Moreover, on the very same day, the Liberal Democrats retained control of Portsmouth City Council. I cannot help but suspect that some of your fellow members in Oxford would love to have Mike Hancock and the Portsmouth City Council ruling group in preference to Evan Harris and the dwindling band of Lib Dem councillors still left in Oxford.

  • I think the highlights some of the unease amongst our MPs. I suspect there is also a bit of growing tension between Nick and a number of MPs. He has been unwilling or unable to differentiate himself and the party within the Coalition and at times he is tactically naive. Yesterday was one such occasion. A craftier politician would have coupled legitimate digs at Labour with some reaching out – we are going to have to work with them to get AV through.

  • @ Sunder

    I whole heartedly agree. It seems like some Lib Dems think they will be able to politically and electorally prosper with the “support” of the Tories alone. That would seem to be a historical mistake to me.

    However, surely the Labour Party will have to be more selective and constructive in it’s criticisms of the Coalition and the LIb Dems in particular. I, for one, think there are real causes for concern in the Lib/Con agenda. If Labour could refrain from its scattergun approach and offer practical alternatives, I think you could have some real influence on the legislative programme.

  • @Geoffrey Payne
    I dont get any sense at all from voters that they feel there is much wrong with the current constituencies. The anomalies are much fewer and less problematic than they used to be or are made out to be. Surely what we need is a clear focus on AV without the distractions about number of constituencies, other elections on same day etc. Makes everything clearer, simpler and more likelihood of a YES vote.

  • George Kendall 6th Jul '10 - 1:58pm

    @Sesenco

    In 1997, I travelled to Portsmouth South and did a lot of work to help get Mike Hancock elected.

    I certainly wouldn’t want sycophantic careerists, but neither do I want MPs who have no loyalty to their party.

    Admittedly, the press give little coverage to loyalty, so maybe I’m missing the true situation, but I am a little concerned at what I’ve seen from Mike since the election.

    @Sunder

    I agree. The opponents of AV are going to have huge support in the right-wing media, and they’ll be well funded. We’ll definitely need to work together.

  • The aganda (or at the very least percieved aganda) being followed is clearly in a broad sense thathcerite conservatisem, cuts cuts cuts and more cuts

    With regards to that, I’m amazed that there are any Lib Dems who thought that they could somehow avoid cuts when every news outlet in the UK was stating loud and clear that any party would have to make major cuts in public spending because of the deficit. What planet are you living on if you thought the Lib Dems could do otherwise?

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Jul '10 - 3:58pm


    Yesterday Nick Clegg stood up as Deputy Prime Minister in the House of Commons and announced there would be a referendum to reform the voting system within the next year.

    If I’d suggested just a few weeks ago that I would be able to type that sentence with a straight face I imagine most folk would think I’d lost any grasp on reality.

    Why? It was not so unlikely that there would be no one-party majority in Parliament, and so a coalition would be formed. We always said our price for being in a coalition was proportional representation, so the biggest surprise here would be that the “reform” promised falls far short of this.

    I have defended our party and its leadership on charges it has “sold out” because I recognise that circumstances meant we had little alternative. However, if Nick “cuts a lonely figure”, I think he needs to consider support goes both ways, he needs to give the membership of the party support enabling them to feel they are being listened to. Is he making the other party MPs feel part of what he is doing and consulting them regularly so they all feel part of the team? Or is he going off doing his own thing and only talking to those he likes? The “conversation on the plane” leak revealed a nasty side to Nick – he is vindictive against those who don’t agree with him, he appears to have little time for those whose politics aren’t quite the same as his. That is NOT the way to be the leader of a party. His choice of appointments seems very much to show he hasn’t changed since then. Most obviously, I can see why David Laws was given the position he was given, but why Danny Alexander to replace him? Apart from him being Clegg’s best mate in the parliamentary party, of course.

  • I think there is a point to having more Lib Dem MPs in the chamber asking questions to any statement, whether they are from a Lib Dem or a Conservative Sec State or Minister as it provides an additional level of scrutiny, not just for the country but for us as a party.

    However and it is a big however. Any one who has tuned in to BBC parliament at any time outside of PMQs will see the chamber in a much emptier state then it does Wednesday 12 noon till 12 30pm and there is a reason to that.

    I work for a MP; I used to work in Westminster, I’m now based in the constituency office & I know how busy it gets in Parliament. It’s unfortunate that the media never report this but MPs do a lot of work outside the chamber. Everything from meeting with constituents, to meeting with other ministers, or their work on select and standing committees means that a MPs diary becomes very full, very quickly.

    And so in the morning when the Whips office send around the days agenda, including any additions such as statements, MPs diaries are already packed with other commitments that can not easily be moved.

    It astounds me how often I talk with constituents, who ask why there MP is not in the constituency during the week. I suspect if the point was made that MPs do a lot of work inside and outside of the chamber in Parliament, then this would go away, and perhaps if the media reported this rather than another story of how MPs are not in the chamber, this would no longer be a surprise to anyone involved.

    The fact is we are only human and there are only so many things we can reasonably expect someone to do at any one time, even if that Person is a MP.

  • Stephen – I agree that MPs (or the vast majority of them) work very hard, which is why I can’t understand the proposal for cutting their number by 50. This will either result in a poorer service for constituents or the MPs who remain having to hire more aides and researchers to help them – which rather defeats the objective of cutting costs.

    This whole “let’s cut the number of MPs” argument seems to me based on a populist “MPs are useless, let’s sack a few of them” stance – there are problems with our politics but I fail to see why axing 50 MPs will change anything for the better.

    Tony – entirely agree with you on the deficit – even the “Economist” this week is criticising what it calls the “austerity fad” and suggesting that the obession with drastically cutting spending could slow growth and make it harder to get out of recession. We have to challenge this “there is no alternative” line adopted by the coalition – whilst the deficit must be reduced, there are alternatives to the speed and the manner in which it is being done.

  • Why would they cheer to the rafters for a “miserable little compromise” like A.V. ?

    The Conservatives are guaranteed to get their electoral reform with the boundry changes.
    No referendum needed for that easy 30 seat boost to them.
    Whereas the dubious benefits (if any) of A.V. still have to get past a referendum.
    A referendum which will be the last word on electoral reform for at least a decade as changing the voting system every election would be seen as ludicrous by the public and would be voted down easily.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 7th Jul '10 - 12:31am

    “even the “Economist” this week is criticising what it calls the “austerity fad” and suggesting that the obession with drastically cutting spending could slow growth and make it harder to get out of recession.”

    I have the strangest feeling I’ve heard that argument somewhere before.

    Just a minute. Isn’t that what the Lib Dems were saying during the election campaign?

    Oh well. There’s nothing we can do about it until the next election, and that’s 5 years away.

  • This article is spot-on, because it diagnoses the fact that LibDems are not as good as the other two main parties at creating or using group/ Party solidarity, as I know from my local council. We don’t think it is important.

    Overcoming this nebulous but important fact -particularly as far as the Press is concerned -will be central to whether or not we succeed in convincing the rest of the country that our ideas are not merely progressive, but good.

    And that will control, in the end, whether people think we did a good job, and whether they vote for us again.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Jul '10 - 12:40pm

    John Oakes

    This article is spot-on, because it diagnoses the fact that LibDems are not as good as the other two main parties at creating or using group/ Party solidarity, as I know from my local council. We don’t think it is important.

    I don’t think this is a general thing. Here I think what we are seeing is a manifestation of Nick Clegg’s poor leadership skills. If he had god leadership skills, our MPs would want to be there supporting him. They are voting silently with their feet against him. He need to sort this out and QUICK. That means eating a bit of humble pie and accepting there is a diversity of views in our party and that leadership involves co-ordinating all those views not favouring only one set of them.

  • George Kendall 7th Jul '10 - 8:59pm

    @John Oakes
    @Matthew Huntbach

    Interesting points.

    I’ve no knowledge of Nick Clegg’s leadership skills, other than what I can infer from the media, but I tend to agree with John Oakes.

    Years back, when I was a councillor, we had a problem with mavericks. Their behaviour at times threatened the cohesion of our administration. If you look back at our parties’ history, that’s happened often: Lloyd George vs Asquith, David Owen vs David Steel to name but two.

    I fear it may be part of the non-conformist Liberal tradition; less important in opposition, but a serious issue in administration.

    But, considering the situation, I think the party has held together pretty well under fire. Actually, the onslaught from Labour may have helped our cohesion.

    Our PR hasn’t been great. I think we have to accept that it’ll take the party time to adjust to the loss of key staff, and that key MPs are tied up with Ministerial responsbilities. This is a new situation, and everyone is learning as they go.

    Our leading MPs are taking joint cabinet responsibility very seriously, even when they have to defend the indefensible. They may be right. If our leaders were constantly hinting that they hated certain Tory-inspired policies, Tories would do the same, and the whole cohesion of the government might break down. But the party certainly pays a price for supporting policies we’d otherwise oppose.

    And eating humble pie isn’t an option. With the spotlight of the media following our leader’s every nuance, any hint of doubt, and it’d be on the front pages the next day.

    Danny Alexander’s move to the treasury may have caused problems. Danny was playing a key role behind the scenes in cabinet committees, working to hold the coalition together. Now he can’t do that, that’ll be taking more of Nick’s time.

    I remember a piece that gave advice on coalitions, and it said that the leader should not be too busy. If he weren’t, while he shouldn’t be eating humble pie, but he could be spending more time with backbenchers.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Jul '10 - 12:12pm

    George Kendall

    Years back, when I was a councillor, we had a problem with mavericks. Their behaviour at times threatened the cohesion of our administration. If you look back at our parties’ history, that’s happened often: Lloyd George vs Asquith, David Owen vs David Steel to name but two

    Indeed, the problem is when the Leader is the maverick who pursues his own interests and does not listen to his party, especially not to those who are loyal members but who are of a different strand of opinion than his.

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