Opinion: We are Liberal cherries in a very Conservative cake

Lords Reform might have only gone missing, but we should prepare for the idea that we might find a body.

We should first realise that we haven’t yet made a single, big achievement in this government. That is not to say that I do not think that the Pupil Premium is a bad thing – I am a passionate advocate. The same with the £10K tax threshold; I even believe we could move forward on that. These are good achievements, but not legacies.

The Conservatives have introduced Police and Crime Commissioners and presided over a massive shake-up of the NHS. These will change the face of policing and health in this country forever. The Conservatives have also framed the economic debate and somehow we find ourselves nailing our colours to their mast of austerity. The gloomy and brief message we can take from this is that we are part of a government that looks, feels and sounds Conservative and yet is also revolutionary. It is stealing the language of accountability and democracy away from us.

And as yet, we’ve in no way made an achievement that defines this government or cements it as a Liberal-Conservative government. We are Liberal cherries in a very Conservative cake.

And, now, the Conservatives threaten to kill our flagship Lords Reform.

So what do we do?

I am, after some reflection, not in the “kill the boundary reforms with fire” camp. I think they are a rough deal for us, but even if Lords Reform is dead, we should not veto these reforms if we can salvage something. I am adamant that whatever we must salvage from this must be as big or bigger than Lords Reform. A few suggestions I have, and I’d like to hear yours, are:

1. The scrapping of Trident. Not something I believe that the Tories would go for, but it would really boost us electorally and inspire activists.

2. Revisiting the Localism Bill, giving another look at the referendums clauses, and devolving more power.

However, I think if we wanted to frame the above devolution in Liberal, rather than Conservative, terms, we would have to pair it with the following:

• Changing the electoral system for local elections from FPTP to the Single Transferrable Vote

This would have two effects. It would be a big change and a lasting legacy for us (not that we should stop there, this is just in exchange for Lords Reform!). It would also help preserve our, putting it nicely, struggling local electoral base, stem the tides of wipe-outs on councils around the country and develop bases in new places.

More important than what we salvage from this is that we do not let the Tories trample on us when they forget that they did not win a majority in 2010.

Let’s not let them forget that when we go forward with trying to get across our liberal message in the months and years to come.

* Kevin McNamara is a Fellow Royal Society of Arts, Honorary Vice-President Liberal Democrat Campaign for Race Equality and Honorary Vice-President Young Liberals

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29 Comments

  • “Changing the electoral system for local elections from FPTP to the Single Transferrable Vote”

    Seeing as the no2av campaign did a bang-up job of convincing the country that the Lib Dems were pushing AV as a means to their own gain – an expensive attempt to ensure a power grab for elections to come – I’d drop this idea now.

    AV is too fresh in the minds of normal voters – and clearly the majority of them thought it was a terrible idea. I can’t imagine the implication that “it’s like AV, only better” will wash with many people.

  • Richard Dean 6th Aug '12 - 5:24pm

    Yes indeed, and we are being eaten alive!

  • Mark Argent 6th Aug '12 - 6:19pm

    One thing that the coalition has achieved is to demonstrate that a hung parliament does not need to mean an impotent government — we may not agree with all the Tories are doing, but seriously weak government could have been very bad for the country.

    There has also been no suggestion that the cabinet ministers we have fielded are sub-standard — and even calls for Vince Cable to replace George Osborne as Chancellor.

    These things do aid our long-term credibility, and counter the argument that electoral reform can’t happen because it would lead to unworkable coalitions.

  • Peter Watson 6th Aug '12 - 6:29pm

    It’s been said a few times, but the Pupil Premium was also in the Conservative and Labour manifestos. It is not a uniquely Lib Dem achievement.

  • Sam Barnett-Cormack 6th Aug '12 - 6:35pm

    I am not a lib dem; then again, I have no real allegiance to any party.

    It may have shown that hung parliaments aren’t necessarily immediately followed – by impotent governments – but it has also shown that a minor partner may just roll over for tidbits, removing the positives many sea in a hung parliament. Would the Tories really have been that much worse without the lib dems to temper their fervour? Would we instead be looking at the complete withdrawal of all sickness benefits?

    No, it should be possible for the lib dems to say “look, we put up with all this right-wing crap on health and welfare, and one of the things we were getting in return has died. So let’s see what we can do to reduce the damage of the unpleasant laws we already helped pass, tempering them in regulations”.

  • Real and identifiable gains in compensation for losing House of Lords reform might include more changes to the Health Bill (e.g. reducing private sector involvement); amendments to the Welfare Legislation; and stopping the Housing Benefit element of the Localism Act unless their is sufficient compensation to Local Authorities. Remember: “no one shall be enslaved by poverty……..” (Preamble to our Constitution).

  • Kevin McNamara 6th Aug '12 - 8:26pm

    Thanks for all of the comments, guys.

    I do think we do have a definite focus on going forward rather than cleaning up after ourselves. It’s very important that we’re forward-looking and reforming rather than saying “look we stopped the Tories!” Strategically, important to stop ourselves saying that as our opponents will say “you could have done that by not joining them.”

  • The reason why the number of constituencies should not be decreased in the light of the failure of the Tories to deliver on HoL reform is that a reduction in the number of constituencies will decrease the equitable democratic representation as it will tend to average out the voter profile (if this could be done systematically only one party would win all the seats). Both are aspects of democratic representation, therefore connected,

    It should be emphasised that the commitment for more equal sized constituencies is still on the agenda, but not the decrease in numbers of MPs (I actually think that under FPTP there is a much stronger case to increase the number of MPs and go for smaller constituencies).

    Scrapping Trident would look good, be very easily reversed but leave the country with a worse electoral system than before the last election.

    The only sensible suggestion is to introduce PR to local democracy; however for reasons already given this could not be pushed through. The only possibility would be to pass legislation that would allow councils to decide the electoral system for themselves, perhaps via a local referendum, but not necessarily.

  • “changing the electoral system from FPTP to STV”
    Revising the House of Lords is about electoral reform: proportional representation is about electoral reform. In both instances the Conservatives displayed a bad attitude that went against the spirit of the Coalition. Let’s take advantage of the link to salvage the argument for proportional representation which I believe was lost not so much through the will of a well informed electorate as through devious misrepresentation and manipulation that blurred the historical truth that governments rise to power on figures that do not add up democratically. Who knows what the result might have been if the YES campaign had had the finance it was denied, if AV had not been the sole option or if it had been better articulated.
    There are those who tell me that talk of PR as a bargaining issue in this debate is futile, that the Conservatives would rather drop the idea of boundary change than make any concession on PR : unwittingly these critics are my advocates for if we do raise PR as our price for dropping our objections to boundary change and this time articulate PR properly to win the public awareness it deserves, it could indeed become such a hot potato for Conservatives that they drop the idea of boundary change of their own accord. Then we achieve our objective with an added bonus that while we do not get it now PR is put back on the agenda with a further bonus that a hostile media cannot accuse us of acting like brats throwing their toys out of the pram if we go for opposition as a purely retaliatory measure.

  • My vote would be to wind back some of the more immoral aspects of benefit “reform”. But we need to face up to it – the Leadership will ask for nothing and the Tories will offer/agree even less.

  • sorry but those 3 ideas are truly poor. when coming up with ideas to save the party it shouldn’t be about wooing die hard lib dems it should be about eating into labour and tory support. public priorities before party pandering

  • 1) huge building programme across uk to boost jobs and provide housing
    2) ditch benefits for the well off especially rich pensioners
    3) plough funding into prisons to cut reoffending and change 1000s of lives whilst also cutting crime rates
    4) take a more euroskeptic position in terms of eu budgets.no audit sign off equals no rise in budget

  • David Allen 7th Aug '12 - 12:01am

    I think I’d vote for three wishes from my fairy godmother from the Bullingdon Club.

    I wouldn’t get given my fantasy gifts, but, at least I wouldn’t be surprised by that, unlike most other respondents to this rather odd article!

  • Peter Watson 7th Aug '12 - 12:02am

    @Kevin McNamara
    “We are Liberal cherries in a very Conservative cake.”
    We lost our Liberal cherries soon after we went into coalition with the conservatives.

  • @Sam Barnett-Cormack

    Unfortunately for the Lib Dems the Tories hold a majority of
    seats within England. Interfering overly with English only issues
    like the NHS reforms would open them up to criticism on the West
    Lothian question. It is also unwise for the party to use all its
    political capital on English only issues. It is important to try
    and get some good Lib Dem national policies through,
    constitutional reforms lie in this area. It is very depressing
    that attacks from the press and special interest groups have shot
    down all proposed so far.

    I would quite like to see federalism brought to the forefront. It
    is a long standing, national and popular policy that is very
    pertinent at the moment.

  • Kevin McNamara 7th Aug '12 - 1:21am

    David Allen, you know what they say about those who have nothing nice to say.

    Tom Jones, if for you eating into Labservative support means furthering pandering to the illiberal elements that comprise large sections of their support, I’d rather not.

  • This essay and the comments has made me wonder exactly what the LD Party is trying to achieve by remaining part of such a one-sided coalition. Over 2 years of “government” and the only achievement is a 10k tax threshold while bigger brother has put in place attacks on the NHS, single mothers, the old and the poorest in our community in order to bail out their mates in the City? Sheesh!

    Ok, we haven’t managed to change the voting system or reduce the power of the HoL. Right, let’s insist that we get an even more radical voting reform than the one that was rejected by referendum (?). Let’s force them to abandon Trident and WMDs (?). Send me a postcard from Cloud-Cuckoo Land.

    The best thing the LDs could do to save the people of our country from hardship and ruin is to force a general election, hope that their is no overall majority and form a new coalition excluding the evil Tories. Maybe, just maybe, there would be then enough support for LD core values to achieve some effect.

  • Our approach to constitutional reform is frustrating.

    We talk about our principles but we haven’t articulated a robust framework for implementation. Instead we look weak because we’re prepared to accept any change. This stokes a destructive political conflict where we get attacked by an unholy coalition between left-wing opposition to ‘this’ change and right-wing opponents to ‘any’ change. So when the public is asked to take a view they will continue to reject every next offer, and we get shafted in the polls.

    Scottish independence, a referendum on the EU/Euro, reforms to Parliament and the voting system – these issues are all linked, and we must be able to point to the consistency of our narrative.

    But we can’t because as LibDems we ourselves failed to settle our own internal debate as we got distracted by entering government.

    I mean, who decided AV? Who actually decided an 80/20 single-term constituency-elected split?

    There is a huge majority for change, and it is there for us to unify this will by setting up the means by which we can make the decision. We must show leadership, not sit back and wait for the public to get there in another century by a process of elimination.

    Constitutional reform is too important to be left to politicians. We must speak up and make our voices heard.

    Whatever happened to our Constitutional Convention?

  • “I mean, who decided AV? ” writes Oranjepan. Now, that is a very good question. I always thought it was the Tories which was why it was so disgusting that they trashed it so mendaciously in the referendum, wasn’t it their proposal?

    As for constitutional reform, it seems to be effectively lost for another generation. There needs to be a regrouping of forces and AV written off completely.

  • This seems quite an anglo-centric view of the world e.g Scotland already has STV for local elections.

  • Sam Barnett-Cormack 7th Aug '12 - 12:40pm

    @stuart: Okay, but my point still stands on welfare issues.

    People feel betrayed by the lib dems. How can they trust official party policy in future if the parliamentary party feels so free to ignore it, as they did on time-limiting of cESA? Disabled people will be aware that the DWP in a coalition Government has been giving misleading private briefings to carefully chosen parts of the media, and the general feeling (supported by some evidence) is that this has worsened attitudes to disabled people in general, even where welfare isn’t a part of the question.

    Trust will be better rebuilt by some semblance of contrition and an attempt to put things right than it will by going for some “big bang” item that, while most people may support it, most also don’t actually care very much. A big bang might energise your party’s activists, but it will do nothing to help with the general population, the uncommitted voters.

  • David Allen 7th Aug '12 - 1:01pm

    Sam Barnett-Smith – spot on! There are two things wrong with seeking some sort of “big bang” in compensation from the Tories. First, they are in no mood to give us anything, on the contrary, they believe they have us under their thumbs and they intend to keep us there. But secondly and more importantly, it’s so cynically self-centred.

    A gratetful nation does not want us to find a new and very wonderful piece of policy which has Lib Dem written all over it, and which we can try to grab credit and votes for. The nation would be grateful, or at least less disgusted, if we were to listen to their needs instead for a change.

  • James Sandbach 7th Aug '12 - 2:53pm

    Oranjepan – agree we need to return to first principles in our approach to constitutional reform otherwise we get into a trap of “making it up as we go along” approach to constitutional policy which inevitably get bogged down in wrangling between the political parties interests, What actually is our objective – surely it is about delivering a modern liberal constitutional settlement that has at its heart a Written Constitution, That was always our approach in the 80s and 90s, Ie a Constitution that spells out the structures powers, and limitations on the different arms (executive, legislative, juidicial) of national Government – including composition and powers of the two legislatures (bicameralism) – and how it’s members get there under a fair democratic mandate (electoral system), as well as a Bill of Rights etc, Since getting some of what we wanted from Labour in the Cook-Maclennan Agreement (Devolution, human rights act, reduced hereditories in HoL) we seem to have lost sight of the bigger picture about what a modern constitutional settlement for the UK looks like – so yes whatever happened to our Constitutional Convention idea etc to take this forward? We are one the few remaining states without a constitution (justified on the spurious basis that our Parliamentary democracy functions so wonderfully well that we don’t need one). A Constitution could also contain provision about power sharing in the absence of single party majorities – then we wouldn’t have to make up all the coalition protocol stuff as we go along also.

  • @James Sandbach
    well that’s just what I was talking about – we make the assumption that we’re all on the same page, yet like all assumptions this is a false assumption. There is a lack of debate, and the proposed solutions are being drawn from a vacuum.

    The concept of bi-cameralism is well past it’s sell-by date, killed off by devolution.

    What we have in operation currently with Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and London chambers in addition to Eurepe and local government is a confused concept of multi-cameralism, yet the debate sticks rigidly to reforming what no longer exists rather than relating to the new reality.

    We complain about a lack of gender balance and a lack of representative ethnic diversity among public representatives, but reducing the number of MPs or introducing elections to our upper house in no way addresses these issues.

    I don’t want a reinvigorated centralised state where those inside the Westminster bubble complacently ignore the needs and wishes of unrepresented groups around the country. I want an open democracy able to encourage and incorporate the views of the whole population, demonstrating that we value the participation of everyone.

    As I see it this means meaningful bodies for regions, non-spatial communities and policy areas with effective advisory and executive powers.

    Bi-cameralism locks in the duopoly of establishment interests, whereas multi-cameralism enables a balanced pluralist approach. LibDems need to refocus our attention towards the latter.

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