Before the Christmas break, I produced an article on Lib Dem Voice about how the EU veto could and should be the first step of many where our party expresses its individuality in coalition loud and clear. After this blog I saw many opinion articles about where we stood on various issues. The conclusion? Varied.
Let’s just take one example – tuition fees. Some of us think we will be congratulated at the next General Election for making the loans system fairer. Wrong. While ensuring that up-front fees are in the past and protecting graduates by asking no one to pay money back towards their loans until they are owning over £21,000 are aspects I support, if any of us are to think we are going to somehow get a pat on the back after such a monumental pledge-break then we are extremely misguided.
When we took the responsible decision to work together with a party we despise we’ve tried to insist to the public that we as Liberal Democrats have ‘grown up’, that somehow government has made us a better party. From Lib Dem blogs supporting David Cameron’s EU break-away to others going against Lords reform, clearly government has just made us confused.
Somehow our role in coalition has meant that we’ve started getting stuck in policy discussions rather than sticking to our beliefs and allowing policy to follow on from them.
In the years ahead to 2015, our constitutional preamble must guide everything we do. Our values, particularly in relation to “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity,” are more important than ever at a time when families on low and middle incomes are struggling to cope with financial demands.
If we had done this on the issue of Educational Maintenance Allowance, we’d have recognised that the scheme was very comparable to our core beliefs. That it DID reduce the number of 16-19 year olds enslaved by poverty. That is WAS more economically beneficial to the country and to families than if it were to not exist. That it DID break down vital poverty barriers to education. Yes, we would have recognised it wasn’t perfect, but we would have worked on improving the scheme as it was, not running along with the Conservative mantra about discretionary being better. As a result of being conformist and frankly a bit ignorant (Further Education students used to be extremely apathetic before EMA was abolished and this aspect was ignored), we joined the Tories in introducing a poor replacement and enslaving young people by poverty.
If the coalition negotiation team had stuck to Liberal Democrat principles on tuition fees, we’d have expressed it from the start as a ‘must have’ policy to not increase them. Then, if we’d introduced the fairer aspects of the scheme we have now then we’d be laughing and Nick Clegg effigies wouldn’t appear at every protest around. As it is we’re suffering badly, as young people now perceive to be enslaved by poverty, and the party probably won’t recover for a long, long time.
Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, but what can we do about it from now on?
Well, when we stick to our principles and the public hear us we do tend to get recognition. Take the Iraq war, as well as our opposition to the introduction of tuition fees as just a couple of examples.
Liberal Democrat policies do tend to resonate with people when they are listened to. We do tend to win over support. And now, in government, we have got the attention of the nation and the ability to act rather than shout from the sidelines. Being in government doesn’t mean we can’t express our opposition – after all, that’s one of the benefits of being in a coalition. We need to make sure that any criticism we face is for not quite having perfect policies rather than see our core principles questioned.
So when discussions on lords reform take centre stage, we need to be very clear ahead of the game what Liberal Democrats believe in and, more importantly, why. The same goes with reforms to welfare benefits such as the Disability Living Allowance, our relationship with the EU & foreign relations, the prospect of irreversible climate change and banking reforms including curbing executive pay – all of which will be the key issues in the years ahead that we need to get right.
Tony Blair’s memoirs said that ‘liberals’ are “happier as critics.” I say we just know the difference between right and wrong. We all know we need to express our individuality as a party in coalition if we are to succeed in 2015, and to do that we must be clearer than ever before on what we believe in, but open up discussion for how our values will be put into action.
That’s the path to success in 2015. And it’s a path we should all stick to.
* Callum Morton is leading the buzz around the #FEparty hashtag and works in Tom Brake MP’s office as an apprentice.