Opinion: Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary exploited people

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

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  • Absolutely agree with your last sentence. We lost momentum after that first exhilarating debate because we tried to be an agent of political reform when the voters wanted a champion to fight for their concerns. We continued to distance ourselves by seeking party political advantage through the referendum on AV demonstrating to many that our interest in a Coalition was not saving the country or helping them but in a time of financial crisis but our own self interest as politicians.
    Leveson is the ideal opportunity to put that behind us and get ourselves back alongside ordinary exploited people fighting for a Fairer Britain.

  • “Fitting a Coalition into a system of collective responsibility that protects Prime Ministerial power was the great error”

    Very true, and many on here have been saying this (and been castigated at times) since 2010. If the public do not get to see and hear a distinctive Lib Dem voice at the top table they will not be keen on another coalition of whatever flavour.

    As I’ve said many times on here, collective responsibility can mean voting for something you do not support (for example if it is in a coalition agreement), but it should never mean pretending to support it.

  • David Pollard 3rd Dec '12 - 8:31pm

    Great stuff. Sign the Hacked off petition.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 4th Dec '12 - 3:27pm

    Brilliantly crafted piece. Thank you.

    And is this Freudian slip of the week?
    On the BBC Daily Politics Show, Guy Opperman MP (Con) got very excited and, having diction related problems, inadvertently referred to the report by the Lords Black and Hunt as “The Blunt Hack proposals”.

    I’m still laughing.

  • Richard Dean 4th Dec '12 - 6:45pm

    Hasn’t the electorate already given its verdict on alternative voting systems? It seemed like a pretty clear NO to me. That means, since this is a democracy, that it’s no longer the right thing to do. It’s no good being the leader of the anti-Establishment, It achieves nothing. What we need to do is BECOME the establishment, changing it as we do.

    One result of setting out policies in the way suggested is that the electorate is going to get a bit confused, because some of our policies are actually others’ policies too, and is also going to be reminded, again and again, of how the bits that are uniquely ours get ignored. The impression given can easily become that of a marriage that has broken down with the participants playing to the gallery rather than trying to work things out.

    I wonder if what is really being proposed here is a way for some factions in the party to get more control over the party or the MPs? If so, perhaps those factions should take their own advice, and set out each of their proposals clearly first, before the negotiations begin about what the party should be doing in Parliament? That way the whole party would be able to see what is going on, and participate in the debate.

  • Richard Boyd 4th Dec '12 - 8:06pm

    Common-sense and based on the wisdom of having actually done real campaigning and
    not just read about it. Bill is, as always, right that the electorate has been trained to vote
    against something and not for something. The shock of realising that coalitions will not
    make the sky fall on us, will take time to sink in. We are on a learning curve in the application
    of power ( and many of us recall that in the 1993-97 shared administrations in the Shires)
    and a teaching curve to show that voting for something is the best way forward.

    Robust presentation of identity will irritate the Tories,but it doesn’t matter because they

    dislke us more that Labour anyway.

    Yesterday’s Man

  • Richard Dean 4th Dec '12 - 11:41pm

    I wonder what “Dem” means in “LibDem”?

    Dem = Don’t take any notice of the electorate, just follow your own beliefs!

    Now I understand why the electorate say No to LibDems!

  • Richard Dean, you are correct that AV was rejected and in the wake of that rejection, any other reform of the electoral system for some time. You are incorrect to claim that opinions which hold that PR (or for that matter AV) are more democratic should now be suppressed. Votes do not invalidate arguments (or vice versa); arguments can only be countered by other arguments and votes by other votes.

    If an electoral system is fundamentally wrong and undemocratic, such as pre 1990 South Africa’s apartheid system, that judgement would be unaffected by any vote. FPTP is inherently unrepresentative; that kind of statement cannot change its meaning as a result of a vote.

  • Richard Dean 5th Dec '12 - 7:16am

    Well, Martin, that’s one set of opinions you have there. Not facts. What is fact is determined by the electorate, and the UK electorate has determined that the FPTP system is right and democratic enough for their use. They have determined quite firmly, too.

  • FPTP wasn’t chosen, AV was rejected. As there was no proportional system on offer, drawing conclusions about the public’s views on PR would be illogical….,

  • Richard Dean 5th Dec '12 - 9:19am

    I’m continually surprised at how people cannot see what they don’t want to see. Pushing changes that have been rejected by the electorate is a way confining LibDems to the oblivious margins of politics. It’s a damaging waste of time and effort.

  • David Allen 5th Dec '12 - 12:43pm

    This debate is unhelpful and not fair to Bill le Breton. Bill didn’t write yet another piece rehashing the arguments about AV. He wrote about how important it is for us to stand up for our own policies and principles. Yes it is! And with Leveson, Clegg has done it well, for a change! Can we get back to debating that, please?

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