I’ve just returned from my first ever party conference. I wrote before about why I joined the Lib Dems, and was fortunate enough to be able to state from the main platform the reason. But it is obvious that the Lib Dems are still seen as traitors for enabling illiberal legislation to be voted through. For example
In response, someone did post this link, which states clearly that Tim Farron was one of a small number of Lib Dem MPs who did oppose secret courts, but the general charge, that Lib Dem MPs became essentially lobby fodder to support a number of policies that were not just opposed but genuinely hated by many, does stand. I’ve also had the Health & Social Care Act quoted at me, and I thought carefully about voting Lib Dem in 2015, largely because of the betrayal on university tuition fees although partly because I was distinctly uninspired by their election message. And yet, within three weeks of the election, I still joined.
The numbers of MPs returned in 2010 made coalition with the Conservatives pretty much inevitable. While it was possible, in theory, that the Tories could have chosen to govern on their own on a minority basis, and probably call another election a year later, the numbers simply didn’t stack up for any other alternative. And accounts seem to indicate that the Tories were well prepared for coalition negotiations in a way that the Labour Party simply wasn’t.
I was enthused by the idea of coalition in 2010, but cautious with it. Something warned me not to trust the Conservatives – something which was borne out by Cameron’s reversal on his pledge not to campaign against AV in 2011. Negotiations within coalition most notably broke down over Lords reform and boundary reviews. But pretty much everything else that was passed went through unscathed.
The Lib Dems did block certain legislation, such as the Data Communications Bill (or Snoopers’ Charter), but there is still the issue of the illiberal legislation that Liberal MPs voted for.
I’ve said for a while that I didn’t disagree with the notion of coalition, but I did disagree with how it was done. It seemed that individuals were essentially given complete control over their department’s legislation, so that the departments run by Lib Dem Secretaries of State produced progressive, liberal legislation, while departments run by Conservatives produced typically conservative legislation – and both sets were voted through. Indeed, we now see some of the liberal legislation passed in the last parliament, such as green energy, social care and education policies, already being rolled back in a matter of months by an unshackled Conservative administration.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about why this departmentalisation was the case. After all, if I stand for election in any way, I have to have some clear thinking on this issue. The conclusion that I’ve reached was that it was probably pretty much impossible to do it any other way. As we saw over the Tories’ refusal to contemplate Lords reform, which led to the public withdrawal of Lib Dem support for reducing the number of MPs, if we expected the Lib Dems to refuse to vote for certain legislation, then we could also expect the Tories to also act the same way. We saw an example of what the numbers would look like in the same-sex marriage votes
There is a case to make that this is a perfectly acceptable way to proceed – the only legislation that can pass garners the support of both governing parties. Indeed, that would be my ideal. But, given the continued right-ward drift of the Conservatives over the past 30 years, it was very unlikely that Cameron would have been able to command the support of the majority of his party behind any liberal policies if they knew they always had a veto.
So that’s an explanation as to why it happened. Only the individuals concerned can confirm whether that was the agreement or not. The next step is to explain the reasons to the voters, as the Lib Dems are still obviously toxic to a large number of voters, and we desperately need them not to be.
Tim Farron has, I believe, today made a clear case for what liberalism is. It happens to be one that I thoroughly agree with. It was also why I was uncomfortable with how coalition appeared to be working. My main feeling over the past few days was how at home I actually was within the party. My core political beliefs seemed to chime with what was being discussed, not just from the platform but also in other debates. More than once I made a comment in a discussion, which was met with the simple reply “you are most definitely a liberal”. It did surprise me. Even when I was berated from the platform (by someone I don’t think had actually understood the point I had made), quite a few people came up to me afterwards and said they thought the criticism was misjudged and unfair.
My sense of liberalism is, I believe, shared with a large number of my social circle. While that social circle is inevitably biased (by being my social circle), it does lead me to believe that a caring, compassionate liberalism is shared by a large proportion of the electorate. And a large section of that proportion, as well as a large proportion of my friends, will still feel betrayed by some of what Lib Dem MPs voted through.
Yes, I want to see the Health & Social Care Act repealed. I see very clearly what impact the dismantling of the NHS has had, not just on trans people, but on a large number of people who suffer from cancer, multiple sclerosis, and other long-term diseases, and those who just want to see a GP or are waiting for an operation or treatment. The Act has to go.
Yes, I want tuition fees to be completely abolished, not just reverted back to £3,000 or £1,000 per year. The idea that students will graduate with tens of thousand pounds worth of debt, to be repaid over many years in a form of graduate tax, is to wrongly reduce education to a commodity. Education should and must be an investment in the future, something that the whole of society sees the value of and is prepared to share the cost of.
Yes, I think the secret courts idea is absolutely abhorrent. Justice must be open and transparent. The risk of abuse within closed courts is simply too high and not worth the risk. Justice works on perceptions and accountability to the public. We can never live in a risk-free society, and open justice has been one of the core pillars of our society for hundreds of years, excepting times of war.
But, and most importantly, yes, I want a government which is prepared to stand up for the weak, the helpless, the outsider, the vulnerable. And the only way to get one of those, and not another coalition, is to get a minimum of 326 Liberal Democrat MPs into the House of Commons. The Conservatives aren’t standing up for those people. Labour stopped standing up for those people. Tim Farron has placed that agenda clearly at the core of the Lib Dem campaign over the next few years. And that, and not the mistakes of the past, is why I support him.