Blast from the past: Paddy Ashdown on principled opposition

As I’ve watched the shameful shenanigans in the House of Commons this week over Lords reform, one event from our not so recent past kept popping into my head. Those of us of a certain age can remember the eventful passage of the Maastricht Bill through Parliament in 1992/93.  Even though they agreed with the principles of the Maastricht Treaty, Labour teamed up with Tory Eurosceptics to try to undermine the Government.

The Liberal Democrats, enthusiastic about closer European partnership, played no such games. I would be lying if I said I had taken this entirely calmly at the time. After 14 years of Tory rule, I, like many, was so fed up of them that it took me a while to understand why we hadn’t got rid of them when we had the chance.

Paddy Ashdown wrote about this in his autobiography, A Fortunate Life:

Both these events (Black Wednesday and the devaluation of the pound) terribly weakened Major’s Government and presented the opposition parties with a most tempting opportunity to vote with Major’s Euro-rebels and  defeat him in the Commons. But if we did this we would destroy Britain’s future in Europe at the same time. After much debate and some arm twisting, especially with Charles Kennedy who wa very uncertain on the issue, (I wheeled out Roy Jenkins to help out here), the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party finally agreed we would stand by our European principles and support the Government. Labour, on the other hand, though in favour of the Bill in principle, said they would join the Tories’ Euro-rebels in order to damage Major and perhaps even, as they saw it, bring his Government down.

When it comes to deciding what you should and should not do in Opposition, I have always believed in the policy of George Lansbury, Labour’s forgotten leader before the Second World War, who said it was usually wisest for opposition parties to reject th temptations of easy opportunism and act as they would do in Government. For that is the best way to show the electorate that they can be trusted with power.

Paddy went on to say that this was the vote of which he was most proud during his time in the Commons. Despite some disquiet and resignations from the Party, he says that sticking to our principles did us very little harm in the end “and may even have done some good.”

We have a situation where Labour, who say they believe in Lords reform, although they did precious little about it during the 13 years they were in power, were prepared to vote against a structured timetable to get the legislation through, without actually defining how many extra days of scrutiny they would like. At the same time they voted for the Second Reading of the Bill. How is that even logical?

Labour tweeter Aidan Skinner told me on Twitter last night that:

So, if that’s the case, you have to wonder what else Labour will vote against that they should believe in. Will they try to scupper ,  measures to restrict executive pay, banking reform, libel reform, the children and families bill which gives parents more choice in childcare and parental leave?  Will they vote down the Grocery Adjudicator who will make sure the supermarkets play fair with their suppliers?

Politics could be about to get very messy. Labour and the Conservatives both want to show that Coalition can’t work, that parties can’t really work together. It will be the challenge for the Liberal Democrats to persuade the public that they can and should. Maybe our party will shine as the only responsible adults left in the House of Commons, and, maybe, Ed Miliband will realise that burning all bridges might not be the wisest thing to do. He may need us one day.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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19 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 11th Jul '12 - 9:29am

    Caron, what was the cost to the nation of four more years of Major-led Conservative Government, including the sleaze which began the disconnection of the People with their Parliament? In what ways did the European elite’s ability to get Maastrich through pave the way for the fixing of economic performance details in the run up to Euro entry? Is the Maastrich Treaty the cause of the Eurozone’s debt feast and subsequent bust? Did the provision in the Treaty that the UK Government cannot fund its deficit with money creation hamstring our ability today to get our economy moving through infrastructure investment, i,e , monetary and fiscal stimulus?
    I well remember phoning (I think it was Alan Leaming) in Paddy’s office the night of the key vote urging us to vote against – a general election would have followed in five weeks. It provides an interesting counterfactual.
    Sometimes tactics and strategy are in line.
    B

  • ……………………….So, if that’s the case, you have to wonder what else Labour will vote against that they should believe in. Will they try to scupper , measures to restrict executive pay, banking reform, libel reform, the children and families bill which gives parents more choice in childcare and parental leave? Will they vote down the Grocery Adjudicator who will make sure the supermarkets play fair with their suppliers?………………………….

    Try Tuition Fees, NHS, Disability, Welfare, etc. Those in ‘glasshouses, etc”.

    I note that on a day when our coalition ‘partners’ failed to honour their agreement (despite our leadership performing moral summersaults to back their policies) we are still blaming Labour (in this post going back 20 years to find a stick with which to beat them). What is the LDV agenda?

  • “Politics could be about to get very messy. Labour and the Conservatives both want to show that Coalition can’t work, that parties can’t really work together. ”

    True of the Tories, but at what point has any ground been given to Labour ? At what point has any senior Lib Dem attempted to compromise with them ? If you want to prove Parties can work together demonstrate it. Laws was very poor on newsnight, never offered even a glimmer on the referendum and left me with the impression the government, far from wanting compromise, have shut up shop on this.

    Personally if by the time of the next election I feel that the evidence shows the leadership will work with only Tories then my vote will be lost. I supported the coalition in terms of practicality and for the national good, if the position is the same in 2015 as 2010 then another coalition with the Tories would again be the first option but if it is different then I need to be able to believe that another coalition could be entered into. Without this knowledge I’d be voting Tory….

    But if the party believes in plural politics it must show this by being willing to give some ground and compromise with both Tories and Labour. Last night could have been won if only a referendum was offered, and it could have been won if every non Government Tory rebelled, all it needed was a bit of give and take.

    Clegg should publicly offer Labour additional time (say 15 days) and a referendum or offer to support a referendum amendment in return for Labour abstaining or supporting a guillotine. Bluff called, ball in Labours court. That way even if the reforms fail Clegg and the Lib Dems are the political winners. If Labour agree Clegg is the big winner, Labour get a bit of reflected glory and the Tories look disingenuous. Better still if there are enough voted without the Tory rebels Clegg can allow his party to rebel against boundary changes…..

  • “We have a situation where Labour, who say they believe in Lords reform, although they did precious little about it during the 13 years they were in power”
    It is silly to describe getting rid of most of the heredities and moving to a mostly appointed chamber as “precious little”. And you could write a book about Labour’s various attempts for further reform. The problem has always been that while there is a majority for Lord’s reform in the Commons building an effective consensus around a particular set of proposals has always proved difficult. The analogy with Lib Dem support for Maastricht is poor because Labour did vote for reform last night. What they voted against was being railroaded by the coalition. No doubt they are mischief making to a certain extent but they do have legitimate points to make, not least the necessity of putting this major constitutional change to the people in a referendum. I don’t know anyone who is wildly enthusiastic about the current proposals. They need further debate.

  • Charles Beaumont 11th Jul '12 - 11:37am

    “Maybe our party will shine as the only responsible adults left in the House of Commons”. I doubt it. There is no history of the electorate rewarding responsibility in the HoC, even as he public says they don’t like the culture of the place.

  • The choice is clear to me, we either support the practical pragmatism of the Liberal Democrats working for a balanced stable society. Alternatively we embrace the instability of lurching from left to right, commended by those who know they are ‘right’ and force us to bend to their will. Both Tories and Labour naturally prefer this second illiberal option, which causes me to shiver. If only they did have all the answers and were ‘right’ all the time however so often they have an answer that isn’t fit for purpose and make an enemy of the good for the sake of the unobtainable perfect.

    Labour seem to advocate a ‘Scorched Earth – total war’ politics which does nothing to help people to put bread on the table instead it causes unnecessary pain and suffering and is morally indefensible. With the Unions planning industrial action before the next election I can see to many innocent citizens being caught in the cross fire of unprincipled opposition.

  • Beckett11th Jul ’12 – 12:45pm…………….The choice is clear to me, we either support the practical pragmatism of the Liberal Democrats working for a balanced stable society…………….

    ‘practical pragmatism ‘. What a wonderful euphemism for ‘abandoning most of our principles’.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 11th Jul '12 - 12:58pm

    Bill, we can’t for sure say what the consequences would have been if we’d voted with Labour against Major. We could have had a really destructive election which began the process of an accelerated withdrawal from Europe to the detriment of our economy and our unsustainable debt fuelled lifestyles didn’t begin in 1993. Nor did disengagement between people and Parliament. Although it took me a lot of time to get my head round, I felt that at least we had been true to ourselves in a way that I haven’t always felt on some of the votes we’ve backed within this coalition.

    Jason, Liberal Democrats have made some fairly major mistakes in Government and beforehand, but on tuition fees, we have a system, honed into shape by us which means that those on the lowest incomes will pay less than they do under the current system. On the NHS, that was an organisation in need of reform if ever there was one. I don’t think the reforms are perfect, but the influence of people like Shirley Williams made them better and got rid of private sector abuses that had been created under Labour. Some of the welfare reforms are designed to help people, give them a realistic option of working rather than being parked in poverty for decades on end.

    Steve, you may be right about Nick Clegg trying to come to an agreement with Labour – it depends on whether they are willing to talk, though, and there’s no evidence of that so far. We don’t even know how long they would like. They also have to think about whether they are the ones who want to stall Lords Reform . There will be no pesky Lords to blame it on this time if it fails.

    Andrew, I don’t like everything in the House of Lords reform Bill – places for bishops, I’d prefer a renewable term, but it’s a massive improvement on the current system where we have 100% appointed. At least the balance of the chamber and the presence of 80% of it will be decided by the people.

    Charles, I hope you’re wrong. If we’re into being the change we want to see, though, our actions have to be consistent with our philosophy.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 11th Jul '12 - 1:04pm

    And what exactly did the Government offer towards what Labour wants in respect of House of Lords reform – definition of the relation between the 1st and 2nd chambers, a referendum, no 15 year terms, no unelected element etc.etc. in order to railroad the proposals through?? It would be nothing short of stinking hypocrisy for any LibDem to argue that in similar situations they wouldn’t use their votes in order to get more of what they stood for. If the Govt wants to offer a take iit or leave it package which they view as the final say – then they shouldn’t be surprised with the result.

    As I said before – al this really demonstrates that there is not a sufficent political consensus around the detail of Lords reform – and that there needs to be serious thinking about using the Constitutional Commission route as in Scotland in order to build a consensus around the model to be used. If Clegg has any sense he might realise that this is probably his best way out of this mess which is largely of his own making and is further indication of his poor political judgement.

  • Caron Lindsay11th Jul ’12 – 12:58pm…………….Jason, Liberal Democrats have made some fairly major mistakes in Government and beforehand, but on tuition fees, we have a system, honed into shape by us which means that those on the lowest incomes will pay less than they do under the current system. On the NHS, that was an organisation in need of reform if ever there was one. I don’t think the reforms are perfect, but the influence of people like Shirley Williams made them better and got rid of private sector abuses that had been created under Labour. Some of the welfare reforms are designed to help people, give them a realistic option of working rather than being parked in poverty for decades on end……………

    As you see Tuition Fees, the NHS and Welfare as ‘victories’ perhaps you might list which policies you view as ‘Major Mistakes’?

  • Caron Lindsay, it would be exceedingly unwise for the Liberal Democrats to claim ownership of the tuition fees policy for two reasons.

    1) It involved breaking a pledge
    2) It’s fundamentally flawed and I guarantee you the next parliament will have to undo it.

  • @Caron
    “it depends on whether they are willing to talk, though, and there’s no evidence of that so far.”

    Last night on Newsnight Khan challenged Laws as to why the Government walked away from cross party talks and received no answer. He offered to meet in an appropriate forum and discuss moving the proposals forwards. Backing the program motion would have taken away their only bargaining chip to getting their stated aim, which is a referendum. Laws made it plain this would not be on offer. There is only point in talking if there is something to negotiate with. I would suggest that having a referendum that would be backed by all three party leaders and party machines would be a far better option than protracted battles in the Commons and then the Lords.

    This is not about the length of debate required even if it should be. For Laws to argue this defies the logic of looking at previous voting on this type of issue. I looked at Cleggs voting record on program motions when in opposition. He voted against a great number because of problems with the Bill, not because of problems with the length of debating time allowed. It is hypocrisy to criticise Labour for doing likewise. I have been saying on this site for months that there needs to be a thawing between Labour and Lib Dems to enable issues the Tory right do not support to progress.

    In many ways, it doesn’t even matter whether Labour respond. The Lib Dems supposedly support pluralism, they have certainly compromised on a great many issues and even abstained when given a chance to vote with their stated aims and principles. Would it really hurt to allow Labour the small victory of a referendum to get to the goal required. I would clearly and publicly offer this and an extension of the committee period to 15 days to call their bluff.

  • Charles Beaumont 11th Jul '12 - 1:40pm

    Caron – I agree that we should continue to operate by the highest principles. It’s just I doubt there will be much electoral advantage from doing so.

    I do think there’s a basic problem in that Nick Clegg tried (and credit to him for that) to introduce something that maintained some of the more popular features of an elected upper house. But in doing so we end up with a weird hybrid which, fundamentally, isn’t very liberal (what is liberal about 15-year terms)? Of course, I think it would be better than the current system. But not by a huge margin, and that makes it rather unconvincing to a sceptical public.

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 11th Jul '12 - 4:44pm

    Why on earth should Labour give the Liberal Democrats a blank cheque on their botched bill and see it nodded through the commons without scrutiny when it has been introduced by Cameron simply to give the Lib Dems something in return for the boundary changes which will deprive Labour of tens of their seats? And why can we have referenda on bin collection but not on a huge constitutional reform? By the way I support a fully elected H of L, with Lords elected on 5 year terms under FPTP. FPTP because the public voted overwhelmingly for it for parliamentary representation.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 11th Jul '12 - 5:12pm

    Well said, Caron, great piece.

  • Simon Bamonte 11th Jul '12 - 6:17pm

    @Caron: “Liberal Democrats have made some fairly major mistakes in Government and beforehand, but on tuition fees, we have a system, honed into shape by us which means that those on the lowest incomes will pay less than they do under the current system. On the NHS, that was an organisation in need of reform if ever there was one. I don’t think the reforms are perfect, but the influence of people like Shirley Williams made them better and got rid of private sector abuses that had been created under Labour. Some of the welfare reforms are designed to help people, give them a realistic option of working rather than being parked in poverty for decades on end.”

    The new fees system may be more fair, but we’ve still lost a lot of first-time voters who we made a promise to – and then quickly went back on. “No more broken promises” ring a bell? The NHS reforms will actually increase private sector abuses and involvement in the NHS. Witness more private contracting taking place right now such as letting companies like Circle run hospitals even though Circle have not made a profit for years and are in serious financial problems themselves. Waiting lists are up, operations are being canceled. Not to mention the fact you pushed the reforms through Parliament against the wishes of the public. As for the welfare reforms, you may think it’s a good idea to force cancer patients back to work or let ATOS constantly hound the disabled through repeated tests that are so riddled with error 40% are overturned on appeal. I don’t think that’s fair or liberal.

    And now our party is arguing AGAINST long debates on HoL reform and against a referendum. And we have the word “democrats” in our party name!

    Not to mention the double-dip recession and rising unemployment the coalition was supposed to save us from, not to mention sitting on the fence when it came to alleged Tory sleaze using the excuse that Labour did something wrong several years back.

    The Tories are using us. They’re getting almost everything they want while we constantly say “we can’t stop them, oh look at what Labour are doing!”. Seriously, the LDs are becoming every bit as tribal and blind to their mistakes as New Labour under Blair and Brown were.

  • Caron: I can almost stomach you defending the Tuition Fees thing, although it sticks in the craw, because although what you say is technically correct it still involved the direct breaking of personal pledges by all those who voted for it or abstained. The NHS defence is a little harder to swallow because it’s a Tory policy with a Shirley Williams figleaf and you know it. But defending the welfare reforms? No, I won’t accept that. Exactly how much KoolAid have you drunk to believe that cutting every welfare budget, forcing people who aren’t capable of work into work for not even minimum wage, and handing the keys to the sweet cabinet to ATOS is anything other than ridiculously inhumane?

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