Opinion: The Lib Dems’ moment of Reckoning

It has been widely remarked that House of Lords reform is not such a major issue and that it should not break the Coalition.

Maybe so.

However what is of fundamental importance is the Coalition Agreement. It was that that was broken last week by Tory MPs.

Up until then the Coalition Agreement had been considered sacrosanct. Lib Dem MPs had loyally voted for policies they didn’t agree with on the understanding the Tories would do likewise; this is how Coalitions work. However it is clear that a substantial number of Tory MPs do not want it to work, and there are more of them than there are of us.

There are some important points to consider. First of all it was done with relish! The Tory right wing absolutely loved what they had done. According to them, since the Lib Dems only make up 1/6 of the number of government MPs, then that is the limit of the influence they should have in government.

Not that that was in the Coalition Agreement of course! As far as we are concerned, the ratio is more 24:38 given the percentage vote for each party in the election.  A dominance of 5/6 in favour of the Tories would simply not be a deal we could agree with.

For the Coalition Agreement to work, it had to be understood by both parties that dire consequences would follow if it were broken. Of course the Tories are confident the Lib Dems will be heavily defeated in a general election tomorrow, so they think they can revert to their sense of their entitlement; that they have a God given right to run the country.

But in this dance of death it would also be the Tories who will be defeated if a general election were held tomorrow. They need to be reminded of the other option; a minority Tory government will give the Lib Dems more freedom to vote against government policy, how do they imagine they can get more through in these circumstances than in a Coalition government?

But what are the options for the Lib Dems?

  1. Mend the Coalition Agreement. Agree with Cameron and Labour a program of House of Lords reform and get it through Parliament. Personally I would actually like the 15 year terms reduced to 5. A referendum seems over the top but I can go along with that. I would love to see STV but that has been dropped and only we want it back again. Beware however of the incentives for both Labour and the right wing Tories to connive to block reform in order to break the Coalition. There is a good chance this will fail.
  2. Capitulate. Decide the issue is not important enough to dig our heels in. That of course will give the Tory right wing the green light to break the Coalition Agreement even more.
  3. Retaliate. Start voting against Tory policies. Join the dance of death that leads to the destruction of the Coalition.

Let’s not fool ourselves that this is a Tory problem. To some extent it is, but even more so it is our problem. All three options contain great risks for the Liberal Democrats. Have no doubt that the Tory right wing simply can’t wait for the next opportunity.

* Geoff Payne is the former events organiser for Hackney Liberal Democrats

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  • paul barker 17th Jul '12 - 6:16pm

    There are 2 more arguments for trying again, first this is an issue that unites libdems & splits both labour & tories;
    second, the context may look very different in 18 months.

  • Tony Dawson 17th Jul '12 - 7:06pm

    @stephen johnson :

    “.. reducing the number of constituencies will make FPTP even more disproportional and unfair to third (and fourth etc) parties.”

    Absolutely true. The whole AV thing should have been tightly-glued to the constituency reduction package (which could have been greater) and reform of the Lords as part of a single great Reform Bill. The patchwork we have suffered instead has been a disastrous mess for country and Party. Geoff’s options set out the problem completely. Trouble is, I do not particularly expect the parliamentary party to follow any of hem.

  • Geoffrey,

    How do you justify the claim that the Coalition Agreement was first broken last week?

    The Coalition has implemented major changes in health and education which were not in the Coalition Agreement, and were way out of line with traditional Lib Dem principles (though no doubt that didn’t much bother Nick Clegg).

    The main electoral bribe offered to and accepted by the Lib Dems in the Coalition Agreement was, of course, the AV Referendum. And of course, Cameron didn’t precisely renege on that offer. He simply broke his unofficial half-promise not to take sides on AV, and spent a fortune to make quite sure AV would not actually happen.

    While the Lib Dems have repeatedly been abandoning their principles for two years, the Tories have made no concessions of any significance whatsoever. There has been huffing and puffing about gay marriage, but it hasn’t actually been legislated.

    Lords reform, which was rightly treated as a second-level issue when the Coalition Agreement was written, now seems to have poked its way to the forefront,for highly dubious reasons. The Lib Dem argument seems to be: “Look, Tories, we have been the fall guys on everything else, so, surely you could let us have a last-ditch consolation prize, couldn’t you?”

    To which a Tory might reasonably reply “Look, Lib Dem patsies, the world just doesn’t work like that. Never mind what was formally agreed in print. It’s a power struggle, isn’t it! And you lost. You showed us, time and again,that we could walk all over you. So we did. And now we’ll do it again over Lords reform. If you guys had wanted to show us you had a backbone, and that you would effectively stand up for your rights, then you should have done that long ago. As the man said, ‘Never give a sucker an even break’ “.

  • @David Allen – too true 🙁

  • Richard Dean 18th Jul '12 - 12:49am

    Agreements get broken. You soldier on. Capitulation is not an option, it makes us useless to anyone. Retaliation is not an option, it helps noone and will be seen as immature by voters. Mending the agreement is not an opton, it’s only partially borken anyway, and mending requires negotation and further unwelcome changes. The only option is to carry on, reduce infighting, look for common ground, argue hard but rationally, do the best for the country, make sure it’s known, and tough it to 2015.

  • Geoffrey Payne 18th Jul '12 - 7:23am

    David Allen – your argument does not really disprove the Tories broke the Coalition Agreement. It was the party leadership that unilaterally decided to support NHS reforms regardless of party policy. They didn’t have to, they chose to. Nothing to do with the Coalition Agreement, that was something else.
    Richard Dean – I can’t tell the difference between what you call soldiering on and capitulation. If we do not retaliate then that means they would have got away with it and will be emboldened to keep on doing it.

  • I would not say the issue, or at least the proposed solution, “unites Lib Dems”. In fact I don’t think keeping a second chamber at all is a liberal idea.

  • It is interesting that Tory rebels against Lords Reform are being portrayed as ‘principled ‘ yet Lib Dems did not rebel against tuition fees or NHS reforms as an issue of ‘principle’ or ‘conscience’

  • There is one further option. Walk away. Say that we’ll go for a confidence and supply arrangement until the next election if we can agree terms that will suit, otherwise, do go to the country and let them decide.

    I realise that this will be highly unpopular and that there would be a terrible price to pay should an election be triggered. But so what, principle sometimes has to triumph: if what the government is doing cannot be justified according to Liberal principles then we should not be doing it any longer. The sooner we go through this reckoning, the sooner recovery will likely ensue.

  • MAT18th Jul ’12 – 8:52am………………..I don’t think it is right to blame the whole Conservative party (and “Toryism” in general) for the voting actions of one section which may have been an expression of conscience………………

    I wish our leadership had an occasional ‘expression of conscience’ moment.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jul '12 - 10:53am

    The big problem with House of Lords reform, as with electoral reform, is that while we may see its importance, most people don’t. So us holding out for it is not seen by the general public as a brave stand for democracy. Instead is is seen variously as politicians being obsessed with themselves, Liberal Democrats having sold out to the Tories in return for something only they care about, elitists who are so out of touch with ordinary people that they give priority to abstract things like this rather than “bread and butter” issues. I very much regret that this means the more we push it, the more we make an angry stand on it, the worse it will be for us.

    Of course, to a large extent this viewpoint comes about due to a cynical manipulation of the public by the right-wing press. We saw it with AV, and we are seeing it now. Because it’s an abstract issue which no-one else is pushing but us, and we have no real friends in the press, most people are easily misled by arguments which when analysed are quite outrageous. For example, the line “An elected Lords will be full of political hacks” can quite easily be put down by two counter-arguments: 1) If you don’t want them, then don’t vote for them 2) And you think a House of Lords whose members are appointed by the party leaders is not? But are you going to see those lines in the Daily Mail, Sun, Times, Express? No. Just as you didn’t see populist lines against so much of what the Tories are doing, which could easily have been penned had the right-wing press an interest in doing so, and you didn’t see any fuss made against what was actually a huge constitutional change pushed through by Labour* last time they were in power.

    We are on our own on this. It would be very different if we had support from the opposition to this government but we do not. They too want the chance to be put into uncontrolled power by our distortional representation system with a second chamber weakened by its undemocratic nature, so that they can continue the (sarcasm font) good job they did last time they had it (end sarcasm font). So the predominant position of Labour supporters is to condemn the Liberal Democrats for their obsession with “irrelevant” issue of constitutional reform when instead they should be doing more to stop this Tory-dominated government doing extreme right-wing things. Labour people on the whole not being very bright, they are unable to see that we wouldn’t have this government in the form it is, if we had a more democratic constitution. Regrettably, since the LibDem leadership embarked on the rose garden “isn’t it wonderful we’re in power?” approach to coalition rather than “Sorry, we don’t like it, but it’s what your vote and our electoral system gave us”, we can’t use this winning line either.

    While I’m very much committed to constitutional reform, I regret we cannot push it if it is just seen as a “LibDem thing” We have to win the case for it amongst the general public first. We have to be prepared to use populist arguments as our opponents have used against us, but unlike them not in a way which is patronising and untrue. Given the mess that was made of the “Yes” campaign for AV, I have no confidence there is anyone close to the current leadership of the party capable of doing this.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jul '12 - 10:57am

    * The big constitutional change made by Labour was the introduction of the cabinet system in local government. Or, as it is better put, the abolition of voting rights for councillors. To my mind, this was a huge issue, bigger than House of Lords reform in terms of its impact on ordinary people, but it went through hardly noticed because it was in no-one’s interest (except us and anyone interested in true democracy) to make a fuss about it (and we – to our great shame – did not make the fuss about it we ought to have).

  • Brian Robinson 18th Jul '12 - 2:31pm

    @Tony Dawson

    Yes, your idea of a single great Reform Bill is what should have happened; I didn’t think of it until I read your comment but I see now, that is what should have been put to a referendum. Combining AV and Lords reform with reducing the number of constituencies would have forced Tories to campaign for the whole package in a referendum if they wanted their policy implemented. All or nothing. If only we could go back and do it again.

  • Mike Barnes 19th Jul '12 - 2:33am

    I do enjoy it when people fret about a snap general election! “We’ll be wiped out!”” they cry.

    Erm, sorry to break it to you, but the wipeout is happening regardless of the date. Doesn’t matter if it’s tomorrow or if it’s 2015, the anger isn’t going away, it’s going to happen.

    What magical event are you banking on happening in the next 2 and a half years to recover the millions of voters lost since 2010? Really, even an economic miracle recovery (incredibly unlikely with Osborne in charge) is going to benefit the Tory party, do you think you’ll get any thanks whatsoever and suddenly recover from 10% of the vote (as now) back up to 25% or so? Never going to happen.

  • The only referendum on HoL reform worth agreeing to would be a multi – option one. One that stops opponents simply opposing along simplistic yes /no lines and forces them to use detailed argument to gain support for their particular favoured option – In fact ,the status quo shouldn’t even be among the options as no parties favour that . AV was lost largely due to wrong person ( unpopular Clegg); wrong time (middle of a recession) ;wrong place (wrong coalition partners- the Tories opposed, Labour supported) I don’t understand what would be different this time really. Seems like another trap.

    And even then , any referendum could be lost due to people voting no to having only 80% elected – opposing letting the bishops remain. You’d be in the ” No to AV, Yes to PR” trouble again , where people, who in principle are in favour, either don’t vote or vote against because the proposals are so half baked and lacklustre .

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