Clegg, Cable and Hughes on ‘What next?’ for the Lib Dems

After the party’s battering at the polls on Thursday, and the simultaneous rejection of electoral reform, the Lib Dems’ future in the Coalition government has been the subject of much media discussion this weekend, with Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Simon Hughes all leading the fightback. Here’s a round-up of some of their BBC interviews…

Clegg fights back with tough NHS pledge …

Cable on ‘business-like’ coalition

Hughes says NHS bill needs ‘fundamental change’

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  • Nigel Thornes blog was very good too! Google it!

  • The Hughes interview begs the question as to why a Bill that needs “fundamental change” was voted through with the support of the parliamentary party? An admission that this should not have happened would be a start if the electorate are to believe that real change is being considered rather than cosmetics…

  • @Steve Way – Because the first two readings are preliminary and the committee stage is usually where any substantial revisions are made. AFAIK, by parliamentary convention, government MPs unhappy with a government bill don’t rebel until the third reading, which is the vote that really matters. Labour backbenchers who planned to rebel on government business usually did likewise in the previous parliaments, nodding ‘objectionable’ bills through the initial stages and asking for concessions when the bill went to select committee (then voting against at third reading if necessary, or else occasionally still voting it through to the Lords in the hope of revisions from the upper house).

  • Looks like NotoAV might save our NHS!

  • @Catherine
    Sorry but not really fitting with the facts. Whilst it may be true that backbenchers try to affect change at committee stage they wouldn’t usually vote in favour first if they felt the fundementals were wrong. Also ministers would be able to demand changes earlier if they had felt they were needed. There are previous threads on this site where the Bill was being praised in it’s original form.

  • @Catherine, Joe Bloggs and come to think of it the majority of the rest of us don’t care about Parliamentary Convention. As soon as the party voted for the bill, they where seen as onboard with the Tory plans to dismantle the NHS. So in future I would advise them to forget Parliamentary Convention and tell the Torys No and make everybody aware they said No when they come up with another Right wing stunt. If they can’t do that at least have the brains to let the Tories do the presentation, rather than letting a Lib Dem act as the mouth piece.

  • @Catherine

    This from Paul Burstow on 20/01/2011
    “The proposed changes announced today in the publication of the Health and Social Care Bill will lead to better quality care, more choice and improved outcomes for patients, as well as long-term financial savings for the NHS, which will be available for reinvestment to improve care. Over £5 billion will be saved by 2014/15 and then £1.7 billion every year after that – enough for over 40,000 extra nurses, 17,000 extra doctors or over 11,000 extra consultants every year.”

    Which goes back to my initial point. At what point did Simon hughes, and for that matter Nick Clegg start to disagree with the fundemental’s of the Bill, partly drafted and clearly defended by one of their own Ministers ?

  • @Steve – yes, I’m the first to admit that Paul Burstow hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory with his handling of this bill. And the strategy of keeping all coalition disagreements private has led to various of our ministers defending unpalatable things in public, and I hope that will change from now on. What I’m disputing is the idea that our MPs were planning until recently to nod the bill through the third reading, which is the one that really matters. I know many of our backbenchers had voiced serious concerns and had spoken to both Paul Burstow and Nick Clegg about it. Nick kept following his strategy of ‘owning’ the entire coalition agenda in public until the Spring Conference vote against the proposals, which prompted him to let Norman Lamb go public with the disagreements. But the disagreements were there before that, albeit behind closed doors (which I agree doesn’t help much).

    @frankie – yes, point taken and I can’t really disagree!

  • As it now looks in retrospect, the Liberal Democrats were faced with a no-win scenario after last election: (1) keep a failed Labour government in on an impossibly slim margin; (2) stay out of government altogether, probably resulting in a Conservative minority government and new elections in short order; (3) support the Conservatives from outside the government, resulting in being blamed for ‘propping up the Tories’ while having minimal influence on policy; (4) support the Conservatives as part of a coalition, and (as we have seen) be blamed for Conservative policies *despite*, or even *beause of* being able to influence government from inside. This scenario wasn’t the result of anything the Liberal Democrats did themselves, but of the hand that the voting public dealt them (and indeed all the parties).

    The question then is, if the above is true — if the Liberal Democrats were damned for dancing with any possible partner, and damned if they danced with no partner at all — then doesn’t it call into question Liberal Democrat doctrine on the desirability of coalition governments? Much of Liberal and Liberal Democrat policy on such questions — as also on AV and STV (and other forms of PR) — seems to have been built on the assumption that the Liberal Democrats were forever doomed to be a third-rank party in Westminster, and that they could not win a majority on their own. (That’s not to say that some kind of PR isn’t a fine idea taken on its own merits — but rather an explanation as to why the *Liberal Democrats* took the lead in supporting it.) The Liberal Democrat role in a reformed system would not be to form governments with its own majority, but to form coalitions with this or that partner or group of partners depending on the seat mathematics and the Liberal Democrats’ ability to gain concessions on issues of importance to its voters.

    Since even a non-reformed electoral system produced a hung parliament, the Liberal Democrats got an opportunity to do just that. But it hasn’t worked out as planned, has it? Rather than getting concessions, the Liberal Democrats are seen as giving them, and their leverage over time has decreased rather than increased. Wouldn’t it be reasonable at this point to re-evaluate the wisdom of coalition governments in a country as politically polarized between left and right as the U.K. is? The Liberal Democrats have tried to take a stand on the centre, but isn’t the centre vanishing before our eyes?

    Of course, the alternatives are almost equally grim, or even worse. On the one hand, one might conclude that there is no sustainable future for a third party in government; *all* that the Liberal Democrats can reasonably hope for is to be spoilers for one of the other parties, or to exist as a minor protest party. And if that is all, then the intellectually consistent thing to do is to call it a day and shut up shop.

    The other, more hopeful (yet desperate) idea is for the Liberal Democrats to reject coalition politics as a mode of governance, reject the idea that they are doomed to always be a third party, and aim higher — that is, to win a majority, or at least a plurality of seats in Parliament on the terms the electorate have decided on. A frightening, and perhaps impossible prospect. But unless the Liberals make that their strategy-creating goal, they would seem to have lost any reason for existing.

  • Evan’s analysis is of course correct. The election result made the coalition inevitable. However in his desire to prove that Coalitions can work, Clegg and the rest have displayed a form of Stockholm Syndrome over the last year has resulted in damage to the Lib Dem brand that is probably irreversible. The electorate may have dealt us a bad hand, but that’s no excuse for playing it so poorly.

  • Bill le Breton 9th May '11 - 7:48am

    David lists four possible ways forward from May 2010. There was a fifth which was a Coalition but with a limited Agreement that did not try to nail down a couple of year’s worth of decisions in five exhausting and pressurized days of negotiaions.
    Of course such ‘certainty’ was what the civil service in the shape of Gus O’Donnell would have desired and pressed for. Council officers do the same in newly balanced councils.
    Experience of working in these balanced councils point to this being also desirable to the major partner in a coalition.
    For instance in 1985 when we first found ourselves in ‘balanced’ County Councils across the country we ran minority administrations in most of the South West counties where we were the largest party by some distance – here a defined agreement where we would become the ‘mouth piece’ of the council and had the larger resources to command the decision making process was the best outcome from negotiations.
    In other councils where we were the smaller partner being able to exercise the power of the ‘casting vote’ was the best outcome. Our parliamentary position post May 2010.
    So our biggest mistake a year ago was the detail of the Coalition agreement and the defering of countless decisons to ‘ministers’ based on that agreement. (And of course the decision not to allow further negotiations to surface into the public sphere.)
    We are about to compound that mistake by working out an Agreement 2.
    We must ensure that this is limited and not comprehensive so that the decision making becomes transparent and of course so that the party can have a real input.
    Let’s not make the same mistake twice.

  • So, the fightback strategy is some tough talking on the NHS. This looks like spin to me and part of a strategy to cut Clegg some slack.

    See for example Dr Phil Hammond’s Medicine Balls column in Private Eye No. 1287 29 April – 12 May 2011:

    “Nick Clegg has weighed in with ‘five key demands’ which are ‘non-negotiable’ 1. Competition should be driven by quality, not price. 2 GPs should not commission services alone. 3. GP consortia must not go ahead in 2013 if they are not ready. 4. The principles of the NHS constitution must be protected and 5. GPs must work local with councils. If Clegg had digested the Bill and its hundred amendments, he’d know that these pledges have already been met, at least on paper.” [Google it for the full interesting article, or better still buy a copy!]

    Besides, in the Orange Book, both Clegg and Laws spoke with some enthusiasm about bringing in market based solutions as the vehicle to a “distinctively liberal approach” to NHS reform.

    @Steve Way asks a pertinent question about Burstow’s figure filled support and Clegg and Hughes’ support for it in parliament, makes their current hand wringing a little less credible.

    @ Geoffrey Payne is bravely insistent that the leadership are bound by what Conference says. Here’s a challenge – I note what Conference said about deep and drastic cuts to legal aid. Conference carried Tom Brake’s motion “…that a properly funded legal aid system where access to justice is not denied to those who can’t afford it is the mark of a civilised and democratic society…. ensure that the potential impacts of cuts are fully assessed before they are introduced, the legal aid budget doesn’t bear costs which should fall elsewhere in the system.” Cambridge’s own Julian Huppert has secured an adjournment debate on the subject on 11 May. How many of our MPs will bother to turn up and articulable what Conference has said.

    Mr Clegg thinks we’ve been punished at the polls because of peoples fears about a return to the 1980s. Well, Mr Clegg, put up a fight then!

  • You’ve lost your vote in Scotland and the North of England, that’s no going to be coming back now. If you start talking about super taxes and getting tough on 2nd homes that won’t make those Northren voters return you know… But it might be enough to lose you loads of support in the South West of England.

    In the north the damage has already been done, jumping left will tonly alien what little support remains. Remember voters are always going to be quicker to desert a party than to return to it.

  • David – there is a major difference between coalition under FPTP and coalition under a proportional system such as STV.

    Under a proportional system, the number of seats held by the junior partner would be much larger with concomittantly greater influence.

    Under a porportional system, parties are not forced to behave under the fiction of seeking to govern alone, but are free to state their preferred coalition partner and areas of policy agreement ahead of the election.

    Under a proportional system, if parties do not do what was expected of them by the electorate they are punished for it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th May '11 - 1:01pm

    David, your analysis of the “no-win” situation is quite correct. For years and years it has been put as if a no-majority Parliament means the Liberal Democrats would act as “kingmakers”, being able to choose whichever of the big two parties to form a coalition with, and able to demand whatever terms they like from it. That is why we were always asked the questions about “which party would you form a coalition with?” and the others never were. The current situation shows it does not at all work like that, though the constant accusation from Labour that we have “sold out” by joining the coalition is cynically trying to pretend it does, entirely for their self-interest.

    The formation of a coalition depends on many factors which cannot easily be predicted in advance. One is the willingness of the big two parties, another the number of fourth party MPs – both these scuppered the chances of a Labour-LibDem coalition in 2010. An important factor we cannot mention in public is that we were immensely weakened by leaving the election on a downwards trajectory rather than upwards. Had we done much better than expected rather than much worse, we would be the ones most willing to see an early general election and so most able to use the threat of one to get our way, whereas with a downwards trajectory we don’t have that card to play.

    The big mistake in presentation from the start was our failure to make it quite clear the nature of the “no-win” situation, and to point out it was the electoral system which placed us in this situation, weakening us and strengthening the Tories so resulting in a coalition which would be Tory dominated, LibDem only in those bits the lead Tories were willing to concede to us (mainly fringe issues). It shows quite appalling incompetence on behalf of those managing our national publicity that voting against AV and so in favour of FPTP was done by so many people to “punish” us for a “weakness” which was in fact caused by FPTP. To me it was stark-staringly obvious that if you support the FPTP principle, you should believe that Cameron has a right, as the FPTP winner in Parliament to have all his own way. Therefore, as a corollary, if you hate the way Cameron and the Tories are dominating government and think it unfair, you should vote “Yes” to AV.

    Labour’s REAL position is that they love the way Cameron is dominating and wrecking this country, that is why most of them are anti-AV, and formed an alliance with THE Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times etc and the fat cat funders of the “NO to AV” campaign to oppose AV and hence support the FPTP principle which leads to Tory dominance.. They want to see pluralist policies destroyed more than they want to see the country in good shape. So they are happy to let Cameron get on with it, and put all the blame on us. Once we are gone, they will have the chance to wreck the country even more on their own next time round.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th May '11 - 1:29pm

    As Bill le Breton put it, there are plenty of people in our party with a lot of experience of tricky balance-of-power situations in local government. Clegg’s first port of call should have been with these people, to seek their advice, to use the accumulation of wisdom that has been built up over the years. Had we done so, I think that while we would still be licking our wounds today (because junior coalition partner is NEVER an easy or popular role), we would not be nearly so damaged as we have been. I am sure that had Clegg humbly accepted that long-standing party activists may have some things to tell him which he could learn from, so many of the mistakes that have been made since May 2010 wold not have been made.

    Instead, Clegg seems to be taking the line our party leaders have so often taken in the past, the line urged on them by the right-wing press, the line urged on them by Tory-supporting media commentators who always dangle the prospect of them giving us their media support if only we follow what they say we should do – and then cynically return to bashing us mercilessly once we have done it and lost electoral support for doing it. We were told we would be taken oh-so-seriously, and that would gain us respect and votes, if we went along with this being an “equal partnership” coalition and used language that suggested we had more or less permanently merged with the Conservatives on a “liberal” (i.e. extreme free market) policy basis. Well, look what has happened? Now they drop us, showing what they really thought of us by the horrendous lies they told and abuse they aimed at us in the AV referendum.

    Clegg surrounded himself with ad-men and PR-people, choosing to take their advice rather than the advice of long-standing activists. He followed the usual Westminster bubble way of thinking of supposing only smart people with wealth and City contacts have views worth considering, of dismissing his own activists as ignorant bumpkins whose only role was to shut up and deliver the “Cleggmania” leaflets. And look where it has got him and us.

  • So Clegg’s come out fighting over the NHS uh, shame he couldn’t of done that for the disabled over the WCA but I suppose that was before the AV vote and he wanted to keep the Tories sweet until that was over and the disabled will have to except that they were sacrificed at the alter of AV.

    (and before anyone says that the WCA was Labour cookie I’m talking about the new assessment (descriptors) since 31st march this year)

  • @Nige:

    Disabled people now only have one political party willing to support them, the Greens. Nobody else will fight our corner any longer. Sadly, the LDs have been happy to let the Tories smear sick and disabled people in the press and get on with the business of removing support and throwing disabled people onto JSA in order to save money. Stephen Webb even thinks the not fit for purpose WCA is “progressive” and he’s done his own briefing against disabled people in the press, parroting more of IDS’ dodgy statistics. In a response to a letter from him, he was happy to respond entirely with Tory talking points. How progressive and liberal is that?!

    When the coalition formed, I thought “at least the LDs will continue to fight for sick and disabled people like they used to.” What a laugh, eh?

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