The path to 2015 should be one guided by our principles, not by doubt

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.

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17 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 13th Jan '12 - 10:03am

    Dear Callum, yours is an important post because it draws our attention to the apparent confusion in Liberal Democrat positioning on a large number of significant issues.

    I say ‘apparent’ but consider for a moment that all the decisions made by ‘our team’ in Government are not confused or the result on poor communication – as you suggest – but have been actually what it wanted, and that it is pressing ahead with its programme as it intends.

    For example, clearly the majority of the negotiating team, in close contact with the Leader and his staff, wanted what they got in the agreement on Tuition Fees – it was dumb politics, given the commitments made during the election – but it was neither the result of confusion nor of a trade made within a negotiation. It was a green line, not a red line issue.

    The leadership had been defeated by conference on that policy, but thought it knew better and pressed ahead. Ditto and most emphatically it did so on the speed of deficit reduction.

    It is easy for those who do not believe what this leadership believes to hope that it is just in the process of getting its act together. Confused, inexperienced but getting better. No, the act is together, it is just that what the Leader wants as policy is different to the majority of the party (as express, or likely to be expressed by Conference).

    The result of an election if it puts a leader into office also frees him or her from his or her Party democracy. THis is true of Cameron, Brown, Blair, Major, Thatcher, Callaghan, Wilson …

    The Leader’s patronage, allied to a political party’s instinct to avoid criticism of the leadership is enough to make it appear that nearly all the parliamentary party and the great majority of the party in the country are also supportive. Conference time threatens to disturb this illusion with a drop of reality – hence the moves to manage conference time and/or reduce it.

    I support going into coalition, but I do not support what the leadership has used that power to achieve.

    I am at a loss to know what to do at this stage, other than, for those who can, to keep communicating what they believe is right and Liberal. The truth is that Clegg is closer to Cameron than he is, for example to me, but also I suggest to most of his Party.

    When the leadership sees how close to the edge it is leading the country and the party it may alter its position … there again it may just do a deal on a coupon election with Cameron and sail on.

  • Callum Morton 13th Jan '12 - 10:11am

    Totally understand your point regarding tuition fees and the coalition negotiation team. That wasn’t confusion, but a deliberate move to see our fees policy as less important. What I hope though, is that Lib Dem members continue to speak up and speak out and do not lose sight of what we believe in, so that our MPs and peers are pressured – the fact that very few Lib Dem peers voted against welfare reforms in the House of Lords symbolises the situation we’re in!

  • Simon Hebditch 13th Jan '12 - 10:54am

    Both Callum and Bill are highlighting examples of Lib Dem policy and principe which have been ditched in the interest of maintaining a coalition with the Tories. I agree entirely that the idea that policies have been adopted as a result of inexperience or confusion is just plain wrong. The coalition was not a marriage of convenience but a merger of joint interests as far as the party leadership was concerned.

    All this later effort to illustrate our “differentation” from the Tories is both naive and ineffective. The public will see that the government has decided certain things and that all its members are bound by those decisions. And where are the red lines? Obviously, we don’t have any – tuition fees, overall economic and fiscal policy, welfare reform, health and social care, European vetos etc etc. Nick Clegg is committed to one principle – maintaining the current coalition to the very end. The problem is that it could well be the very end for the Lib Dems.

    I believe that the Lib Dems are a centre left party committed to economic and social justice and we should be working now to see whether a future alternative alliance can be created which comprises our party, a transformed Labour party and the Greens – working in tandem with a range of campaigning organisations and movements.

    Who knows whether we could construct an alternative political programme over the next two years but we ought to give it a try or we will be consigned either to political oblivion or a further agreement with the Tories. I don’t fancy “sleeping with the enemy” for much longer!

  • Callum Morton 13th Jan '12 - 11:16am

    @dave Tuition fees was the one policy that Lib Dems had that a lot of people in this country knew about. We pledged to vote against any increase, not just to a group of people in NUS, but to millions of students. To go against that was just plain wrong. You only need to go to University Freshers Fairs and see long queues of students by the Labour Party stall to see what a monumental mistake that was.

    @simon I think the way we win back support is to edge towards what Clegg was saying before the GE – highlighting what we went into coalition for, and that we delivered on our four key manifesto pledges. We also need to go back to the fact that before the GE we were expressing ourselves as a different kind of political party, a change to the Labservative tradition of old. The only way we’ll win back support is if we show how we’re different to the Conservatives. Otherwise, we’ll lose the key battle that without the Liberal Democrats, 2010 – 2015 would have been a lot unfairer and unjust.

  • Callum Morton 13th Jan '12 - 1:21pm

    Could not agree with you more @KeithN!

  • We are halfway through this coalition and, rather than showing differences, our representatives (in both Houses) are getting closer to the Tory party.
    Does anyone seriously believe that Cameon sees any ‘moral’ reason to remain in a ‘coalition’ any longer than he has to? ‘Teflon’ Dave has ensured that ‘credit’ stays with him and ‘blame’ gets spread around. Danny Alexander’s inability, on TV, to promote any difference is what will be remembered.

    Suddenly, a few months before a GE, coming up with reasons to ‘Vote LibDem’ won’t wash (especially with Nick’s Tuition Pledge poster being waved at every Labour speech). Sadly, with this week’s PR disaster by 60+ LibDem peers, it may already be too late; but at least we could try.

  • Chris Hovey 13th Jan '12 - 1:39pm

    To KiethN
    “Just as the Tories admit the poll tax was wrong, sooner or later, we will have to put up our hands and say we got tuition fees wrong.”
    The only problem with that was OK they said it was wrong but just tweaked it called it a different name and went on with it anyway thus duping the generally sheeplike electorate into imagining that the tories had actually made a real change in their policy and just went on doing what they wanted to do anyway.

  • Callum Morton 13th Jan '12 - 1:43pm

    Agree with you Jason, but 3 years to make a difference. And it’s a difference we as party members could make by getting out there and talking to voters as much as we can!

  • Callum Morton…It’s a start, but most voters get their information through the media and, sadly, our representatives are ‘sending the wrong signals’.

    The only memorable stand that Clegg has taken against Cameron was over the ‘Veto;’ where the vast majority agreed with ‘Dave’ . Over the years the LibDems have stood as the party of fairness ( those, who looked at the polls and said, “We’d vote if we thought you had a chance of winning” ,knew where we stood). We are now even worse off in the polls and what do we stand for? I have been a LibDem, and a Liberal before that, but, as things stand, I’ll be thinking long and hard before voting LibDem again.

  • Callum Morton 13th Jan '12 - 2:30pm

    Agree with you! Our party should be doing better, particularly with the media. It is worth remembering that when it comes to newspapers we’ve got a good reputation for not sucking up to Murdoch. Let’s hope something changes though and we won’t lose Lib Dems like yourself!

  • Tuition fees the biggest political blunder since the Poll tax eh? So does that mean we will stay in power after the next election but with a new leader?

  • David Allen 13th Jan '12 - 5:13pm

    I agree with almost all the above, and would now like to come at the tuition fees issue from another direction.

    How would we have reacted if it had been Ed Miliband who:

    – Started off opposing the scrapping of tuition fees
    – Lost the debate with his membership and conceded that the manifesto should promise to scrap fees
    – Then agreed, when challenged by the NUS, to sign an election pledge – not just to scrap fees if the party won outright, but to oppose higher fees whatever the result of the election turned out to be
    – Then negotiated a coalition agreement which didn’t make fees a top priority issue, but merely allowed fees opponents to abstain if Browne came up with something they didn’t like (as if anyone didn’t know what Browne would do)
    – Then let the party split down the middle in a vote, knowing that this would mean that a trebling of fees would pass.

    Well, we would say that it just proved how weak, spineless, and totally unsuitable a leader Ed Miliband was. Wouldn’t we?

    A strong leader, in Clegg’s position, might have decided to insist on some sort of manifesto fudge which didn’t commit us to scrapping fees. Or if he couldn’t achieve that, he should at least have answered the NUS with “Look, you’re nice chaps, but, you campaign your way and we’ll campaign our way. I’m afraid we’ve got a master campaign plan, and we’re only talking about defence today. Education was yesterday. We’d love to scrap fees, which is why you need to vote us into power, otherwise we can’t promise we will be able to stop the other parties maintaining or increasing fees.” Etcetera etcetera. Then, we might have lost a few votes, but we would not have looked utterly ridiculous when voting through a trebling of fees. Indeed, having nothing much else to deal with when tackling the issue, we could have concentrated on visible pressure to ameliorate the pain. We’d have stayed on 20% plus.

    Alternatively, in Clegg’s position, a strong leader could have decided to stand alongside his activists, promise not to raise fees, and stick to the promise. That strong leader would have had to say to Cameron that he didn’t need an AV referendum, he didn’t need a huge clutch of ministerial jobs, but he did need a freeze on fees and the abandonment of Browne, or it was no deal. We’d have stayed on 20% plus.

    The charge against Clegg is not, first and foremost, that he had the wrong policy on fees. The charge is that he was weak, miscalculated disastrously, and ended up with the worst of all worlds – from everybody’s point of view, whether in favour of fees or against them.

    If we can say that Labour should ditch an incompetent leader, what about ourselves?

  • “The charge against Clegg is not, first and foremost, that he had the wrong policy on fees. The charge is that he was weak, miscalculated disastrously, and ended up with the worst of all worlds – from everybody’s point of view, whether in favour of fees or against them.”

    It’s not just about Clegg, though. Nearly two thirds of Lib Dem MPs broke their signed promises to the electorate. That won’t be forgotten.

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