Monday, September 5, 2011

Our mistakes in government - a personal view

As we end the summer break and approach the conference season, it is an appropriate time to give ourselves an assessment of what has gone wrong and how we can improve. Recently ConservativeHome ran a piece on David Cameron’s ten biggest mistakes – an article which caused much debate. In the same sense, I would like to list what were, in my view, our biggest mistakes over the last 18 months.

Tuition fees:
No problems identifying the biggest error. This will rank alongside the poll tax as one of the greatest political blunders of our time.

We had rightly made this a flagship issue during the campaign, and got a great deal of support from students and their families as a result. We could have nurtured that confidence, maybe even developed it into the presence of new young members and campaigners. And then, at a stroke, an entire generation of potential supporters was wiped out!

Given the economic circumstances, and the fact we are in coalition, I think we would have been forgiven for putting the timetable back a bit – we could have frozen the fees for now with the intention for at least a partial reduction by 2015. But to see the fees triple, and our guys leading the way in defending this, gave rise to the belief that the Liberal Democrats are a party that breaks its promises – a belief the media will only be too eager to perpetuate and will take many years for us to break down.

Yes, the resulting system is a fair one and many students will benefit, but we cannot get around the fact that fees have been increased. Many members of the party, including myself, were very unhappy about this.

The National Health Service:
It is a well-known fact that you cannot trust the Tories with the NHS – so there must have been particular care at negotiating this part of the coalition agreement. It was a bombshell therefore when the proposed NHS changes were announced to let the market into the system.

What for me was a sickening spectacle was the immediate photo call – where we had our leader, Nick Clegg, join David Cameron and Andrew Lansley on a televised walkabout of a hospital – thus implying that they were at one with the proposals. This gave us a few arguments during the canvassing earlier this year.

During the election campaign, nurses told me about the bureaucracy and over-management of the NHS, so reductions here were necessary – but to jump on board the Tory plan so quick is blunder number two. Fortunately, the party members and the admirable Shirley Williams are leading the way in calling for a rethink, so this cause is not yet lost. But it would have helped if we had not been so eager to endorse the reforms in the first place.

Public sector pensions:
The Tories do not like the public sector or those who work in them. That’s OK, as we don’t like them much either. However it was a mistake for Danny Alexander to join in the attack on public sector pensions – again it is us doing the Tories' work for them. It is agreed that the funding of pensions need to be looked at, especially in the private sector, but we must seek a fair settlement here. When I see the Daily Mail congratulating Liberal Democrat ministers, then I get very worried.

Boundary reviews:
I think agreeing to this concession will come back to hit us very hard. If you look at a map of England coloured by constituency, you will see swarms of blue and seas of red, with a few dots of yellow here and there. These are areas where local Lib Dem parties have gradually built up constituency support over a period of time primarily on local issues.

However, boundary changes will result in blocks of Tory or Labour voters being moved onto these areas and upsetting the balance. The last estimate is that we would lose a quarter of our seats on these moves alone. Sarah Teather successfully held off a fellow MP but are others prepared to work just as hard?

People will always choose to have fewer politicians – but I fear such drastic changes will hurt us.

AV referendum:
In return for an agreement to equalise the constituencies, we got a possibility of a voting system we didn’t really want. Not a fair exchange.

Anyone who follows European politics knows that referendums are never reliable and are inevitably decided on completely irrelevant issues (as became the case with the AV referendum).

Our Scottish colleagues demanded STV for local council elections in return for a coalition with Labour. As many council wards are multi-member, this would have been possible to implement. I think this should have been our demand in England. It would benefit us, further our representation, avoid having councils with over 90% from one party, and get people used to voting 1-2-3.

Finally this was one from the campaign itself. Immigration was one of the most common issues raised on the doorstep, and we adopted a good workable but politically disastrous policy. The words ‘illegal’ ‘immigration’ and ‘amnesty’ were enough to have the media screaming. The Tories ‘cap’ (although not possible) won them support while we should have adopted Labour’s no-policy policy.

This is an entirely personal view of our mistakes. The decision to form the coalition, however, was correct given the result of the election. There is 75% of the manifesto in place and no longer can people dismiss Lib Dem policies on the basis they will never be put into practice.

Nick Clegg and the party leadership still deserves much praise for the successful work they have done over the last 18 months. But we can do better, and must do so, to recover the trust of the electorate.

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