Saturday, June 23, 2012

Is it time for the Liberal Democrats to play hardball?

It was a correct decision to enter coalition with the Conservative party after the May 2010 general election result, and indeed we have got many of our policies into place. However, in that time, Liberal Democrats have also had to take a lot. For example:

  • We have signed up to a deficit programme that we knew was wrong and would not work – as has proved to be the case. Not only is public spending still not reduced, but the country is in a double dip recession.
  • We have had to let the Tories cut taxes for the wealthy and block our attempts to close loopholes, while simultaneously seeking ways to cut benefits on the vulnerable.
  • We have had to trust the Tories with reforms to the National Health Service – as far as I know, no-one has trusted the Tories with the NHS since the 1950s.
  • We have had a major segment of our support, not to mention overall trust, destroyed by being compelled to accept, and then sell, the tripling of tuition fees.
  • We have had to stand by and watch our country’s leader in Europe fighting not with the country’s interests in mind, as Merkel and Sarkozy/Hollande had with their respective states, but with only the interests of 100-odd troublesome Tory MPs.
  • We had to accept a referendum to switch the voting system to one that we didn’t really want anyway – the rejection of which has put bringing in fair votes further back.
  • We may (to be confirmed) have to accept the reintroduction of a two-tier education system which was announced to the Daily Mail before our ministers.
  • We may have to accept boundary changes which will benefit the Tories while undoing a lot of the good constituency work we have done over the years.
  • We have lost hundreds of councillors around the country – and in some areas of the north and Scotland we face extinction.
Now, of course, much of the above we could foresee in advance. We always said we would pay the price in government and, by god, are we paying! But if you read Conservative Home, the media and listen to certain Conservative MPs, you would think that the nasty Lib Dems are stopping the Tories from doing all the nice things that people want. Absolute nonsense! On the contrary, Peter Bone, Nadine Dorres and others should be thanking Nick Clegg every day – they owe him a lot. He has sacrificed so much to put them on the government benches.

It is inevitable that we will continue to lose hundreds of councillors over the next two years – and it is also quite possible we will lose over half of our MPs. We have accepted that as the price of doing the right thing. But I think it is now about time that the Tories took some share of the pain. When we get to 2015, we should ask ourselves – what are our lasting achievements to make the country a fairer place?

This week is an essential piece of political reform for which we have waited 100 years. The House of Lords vote – to put into place a manifesto promise by all three parties to move towards a partially elected House of Lords (and this is 80% instead of 100% - yet another concession to the Tories). True to form, it is understood that dozens of Tory MPs will attempt to block the measure. Labour may well be opportunistic and join them and hence the plans are likely to fail.

We have two possible cards to play. Firstly, if the polls are correct, an election now would see the Tories back down to their 2005 level. Of course, we might suffer too but then if you are going down, who better to take with you than a Tory? Secondly, and less drastically, we could say goodbye to the boundary changes bill (although many Tories would welcome that) – if one party can break their word, then why can’t the other?

Of course I hope everyone will be adults – Tories included. I hope we see Lords reform, the boundary changes and, most important of all, the two parties to recognise the efforts of each other to provide a stable government which will, eventually, find the right way to growth and recovery.

But in a coalition both sides must give and take, and if many of the Tories continue to behave like spoilt children and take and take without any giving, then it may be the time for us to take as well.

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