With the Welfare Reform Bill being debated in Parliament at the moment, a lot of good Liberals are once again worrying about to what extent they can carry on supporting the party. Some of the provisions in the bill are excellent (the universal credit, for example, is a policy the Lib Dems and before them the Liberal Party had for decades, but we dropped it for being too left-wing and radical), others are debatable (a cap on total benefits equal to the median income of the country – there are genuine arguments on both sides here) and a few are frankly horrible (cutting contributions-based ESA for some claimants after a year).
Now, to a large extent, even the bad things this government are doing are defensible. All three major parties agreed, before the election, that cuts had to be made, and this graphic by Duncan Stott illustrates how far the Lib Dems have actually won in minimising the cuts:
And that graphic is taken from a post written before the government announced it was slowing down the rate of cuts.
In other words, a Labour government or Labour/Lib Dem coalition would have done substantially the same things, and a Tory government would have cut much more. This is actually as moderate a government as it was possible for us to get in 2010.
But so often this is the only argument made for the Lib Dems – that we’re making things less worse (that is to assume for the sake of argument that all cuts are bad. I’d argue in fact that a lot of government spending – on illegal wars and nuclear weapons, for example, could be cut without any bad effects). We say things like “Well, we’ve got an exemption for nearly ten percent of orphans in the Widows And Orphans (Massacring) Act 2011, and we’ve got a sunset clause included in the Slaughtering Of The Firstborn Bill so it’ll have to be re-debated by Parliament in four years.”
Those sorts of things are, of course, real achievements, but they don’t really feel like it, do they? Thanks to us, some bad things some other people were going to do are now less bad, but still bad – that’s not a rallying cry to stir the blood.
But in fact, we have also done a lot of genuinely good stuff, things that make the world a genuinely better place, that wouldn’t have been done by any other government. I’m going to make a short list here, but it’s not an exhaustive one – it’s just a list of things that I or my friends have noticed. My main areas of concern are human rights and constitutional reform, while most of the people I’m close to in the party are particularly active in LGBT+ Lib Dems, so those are the areas I’ll highlight. But I’m sure if you talk to people interested in, say, transport or energy policy you’d get a similar list.
No longer deporting LGB people to countries where they’re at risk. Under the last government, the policy was “they can stay in the closet”.
£400 million extra for mental health services, targeted especially at talking therapies Having worked in mental health under the previous government, one that supposedly cared more about the NHS than this one does (their supporters say) I can say from my own experience that the Labour party deserve never, ever to be allowed near government again simply because of their appaling, criminal, *EVIL* treatment of people with mental health problems. Mental health services are already improving under this government (I’m having to access services myself at the moment, for work-related stress problems, and the difference is extraordinary). This is something that was a personal campaign by Nick Clegg.
Lords reform The first elections for the House of Lords are planned for 2015. We might soon actually be a proper democracy.
An end to child detention of immigrants Private Eye argue with the letter of this, but the fact remains, under Labour literally thousands of children were held for weeks or months in what amounted to concentration camps (primarily at Yarl’s Wood) prior to deportation (or not – half were later found to be legal immigrants). Last year, numbers in the low double figures were held for single-figure hours immediately prior to deportation. I don’t care if Private Eye thinks that counts as ‘child detention’ in a literal sense – in a qualitative sense there is a huge, enormous difference.
An enquiry into the UK’s part in torture in the ‘war on terror’. I’ve seen photos of people literally boiled to death by torturers in the Middle East, supposedly acting with the collusion of the British government. These people need to be brought to justice.
The highest ever rise in pensions and unemployment benefits. Pensions are now on a ‘triple lock’, which means they will rise with whatever is greatest – inflation, wages or cost of living. Unemployment benefit rose by the same amount this year.
Lowering taxes for the poor and raising taxes for the rich – Capital Gains Tax has increased by 10%, there’s been a levy on the banks, we’ve kept the 50% top rate of tax, there’s talk of introducing a mansion tax – and this is being used to raise the personal allowance for income tax so the poorest workers won’t have to pay anything.
Actual gay marriage is going to be brought in, not just the compromise that is ‘civil partnerships’. (EDIT should read ‘same-gender marriage’. *slaps wrist* BAD bisexual ally! BAD!)
Detention without charge has been dropped from 28 days to 14. Still too long of course, but we’re some way back towards being a civilised country again.
DNA data of innocent people is being destroyed
Gay men convicted of ‘crimes’ involving consensual adults that would no longer be illegal are having their criminal records expunged
We have fixed-term parliaments – no longer will elections be at Prime Ministerial whim – this has been a demand of reformers since the Chartists.
The ID Cards scheme and database have been ended
The government will guarantee most of the mortgage for first-time buyers – allowing those of us who’ve spent our entire adult lives paying rents to profiteering landlords because of the artificially-inflated property ‘boom’ to finally have the possibility of owning our own home, ending a particularly nasty piece of generational injustice.
The government are also building more social housing than has been built in decades for those who still wouldn’t be able to buy their own home, so they don’t have to rent from slum landlords.
No replacement for Trident will be bought this parliament – because if you’re going to cut spending, take the money away from nuclear weapons first.
So this is why, despite the fact that I don’t support the government, I *do* support the Lib Dems in the government, and why I give up several hours of my weekends to go knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. Because we haven’t made the world perfect in only eighteen months with only nine percent of the MPs in parliament – but we’ve made it better. And that’s more than I can say about the actions of any other government party of my lifetime.
According to the cyberneticist Stafford Beer the purpose of a system is what it does – we shouldn’t look at an organisation’s stated principles, but at its results.
Applying this principle to politics, we can see that for my whole lifetime, the purposes of both the Labour and Conservative parties have been the same – to move that which was formerly the preserve of the private sphere into the public sphere and make it the business of government (ID cards, DNA databases, control orders, ASBOs) while simultaneously moving what was formerly considered the legitimate business of government into the hands of business (privatisations, PFI, outsourcing) in such a way that all the risk remains with the government but the rewards go to shareholders.
The current government hasn’t stopped the second part of this, but thanks to the Liberal Democrats it is partly reversing the first. This is why I can continue to support the Lib Dems despite very definitely *not* being a Conservative. The purpose of the Lib Dems is clearly different from the other two major parties.
Here’s the thing…
I’m not a supporter of this government. Of course I’m not. I’m a Lib Dem, and this government’s MPs are 5/6 Tories.
But nor have I been a supporter of any other government in my lifetime (possibly I may have supported the dying days of the Callaghan administration, but I was only a few months old at the time, and rather politically naive). And as far as I can see the bad things this government is doing are the same bad things that every government of my lifetime has done, while it’s doing a few good things that none of the others have. And the good things seem to me to be pretty much entirely down to the Lib Dems.
Furthermore, the Lib Dems also seem to be preventing a lot of the worst ideas the Tories have.
However, the ranting about ‘ConDems’ and so on seems to have left a lot of people – decent people, for the most part – with the impression that by going into coalition with the Tories, the Lib Dems have ensured that Satan will rule the earth for a thousand years. Because the very real good stuff that’s being done really isn’t getting spoken about.
So every so often I’m going to just do a quick run-down of good things the Lib Dems are doing as a party – either good government measures they’ve brought in, good new policies from the party, or bad government measures they’ve stopped. This doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly turned into some government loyalist – *FAR* from it – and I’ll continue attacking bad government decisions as much as anyone. But it should go some way toward explaining why I’m still in the party.
Vince Cable and Danny Alexander resist pressure to drop the 50% tax rate – though they may support replacing it with a mansion tax (probably a good idea – taxes on property tend to be fairer than taxes on income) they’re ensuring that any tax cuts benefit poorer, rather than richer, people.
The worst parts of the Digital Economy Act are getting dropped, and copyright law will be reworked to make better allowances for personal use. Julian Huppert is still pushing for even more reform, though.
The Hughes Report, if implemented, will ensure more young people from poor backgrounds get to go to university.
The Lib Dems, unlike other parties, stood up to Murdoch and refused to be bullied.
The government will be the first to add new social housing since Thatcher started selling council houses off.
And so on… this is just a list of things from the last three weeks – see this for some of the other things the Lib Dems have already done.
And these may look like only minor good things – and the ones from the last few weeks are, though the ones in that last link include some major, important, good things – but other than the first three years of the Blair government (which brought in a few decent things like the minimum wage) I can’t think of any government in my lifetime where I could list even that many small good things they’d done.
So yes, I’m going to continue to fight against the illiberal tendencies of this government, and to ensure that the Liberal members live up to their professed ideals, but I’ll continue to do so from within the party.
But only because it’s so great. And since I am too headachey to write tonight, I too will reproduce Paddy Ashdown’s wonderful speech on Lords reform in full. This kind of thing is why, despite everything, I still feel at home in the Lib Dems:
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon:
I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that in a democracy the minority is always right. That thought has given me much comfort over the years as a Liberal, and it appears that it will have to give me comfort in this debate as well. I spent an engaging hour and a half yesterday in the House of Lords Library, looking through opposition speeches made in December 1831 to the Great Reform Act 1832 and to the Reform Act 1867. Five arguments were put forward. The first was: there is no public call for such reform beyond those mad radicals of Manchester. The second was: we should not be wasting our time and money on these matters; there are more important things to discuss such as the Schleswig-Holstein problem, the repeal of the corn laws or the crisis in the City that caused Anthony Trollope to write his wonderful novel.
A noble Lord: Not in 1832.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: No, but in 1867.
The third argument, which was put so powerfully—indeed, in bloodcurdling terms—by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, was that if we were to embark on this constitutional terra incognita, the delicate balance of the constitution would collapse around us; mere anarchy would rule upon the world.
The fourth argument put forward in those debates was, “No, no, let us not disturb the quiet groves of wisdom within which we decide the future of the nation by letting in the rude representatives of an even ruder republic. God knows what damage we shall do if such a thing should happen”. The last and fifth argument was the argument actually used by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, just a moment ago: “if it ain’t broke, don’t mend it”.
Those are the arguments that were put forward against the 1832 Act, the 1867 Act, the 1911 Act—every single reform that we have ever had—and they are the arguments that are being put forward now. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. Perhaps I might explain before I come to the substance of the argument.
The first argument is that there is no public interest in this matter. Of course there is not; it is our business, not the public’s. The public have made it very clear that they do not trust our electoral system in its present form. Is there anyone in this Chamber who does not realise that the dangerous and growing gap between government and governed that is undermining the confidence in our democracy must be bridged? It must be bridged by the reform and modernisation of our democratic institutions, and we have a part to play in that too. This is not about what the public want, it is about us putting our House in order.
The second issue is that there are more important things to discuss. I do not think so. Frankly, we have been very fortunate to have lived through the period of the politics of contentment. The fragility of our democratic system has not been challenged because the business of government and democracy has been to redistribute increasing wealth. If we now come to the point at which we must redistribute retrenchment, difficult decisions, hard choices, I suspect it will come to something rather different, as we see on the streets of Greece today and as we saw on the streets of London not very long ago. This is very important.
The third is that we are embarking on a constitutional journey into terra incognita. Of course we are. We do not have a written constitution in this country. I wish we did, but we are told that the genius of our constitution is that it is unwritten, that it responds to events, that it develops, that it takes its challenges and moves forward. Oliver Cromwell did not have to say, “We will delay the Civil War until we have worked out the proper constitutional relationship between Parliament and the King”. In 1832 they did not say, “Let us hold this up until we have decided what proper constitutional balances would be achieved”. If you believe in the miracle of the unwritten constitution, you must believe that our constitution will adapt. You cannot argue that that is a good thing and then say that we cannot move forward unless we know precisely and in exact detail what will happen next. Of course this will change the balance between us and the other Chamber. It will not challenge the primacy of the other Chamber, but it will challenge the absolute supremacy of the other Chamber—that is called check and balance.
The fourth argument is that this will disturb the gentle climate of wisdom in this place. I have no doubt that there is unique wisdom here, although I have to say that I do not believe it is necessarily evenly distributed—maybe in some places it is, but not everywhere. However, I am not persuaded that there is less wisdom in the 61 second chambers that are elected, that there is less wisdom in the Senate of the United States, or the Sénat in France or the Bundesrat in Germany. I do not believe that the business of election will produce less wisdom than we have here now—rather the contrary. It is not wisdom that we lack; it is legitimacy. My old friend, Lord Conrad Russell—much missed—used to say, “I would happily exchange wisdom for legitimacy”, and I will tell your Lordships why.
This is where we come to the final point—the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd: “If it ain’t broke, let’s not fix it”. It is broke; it is broke in two fashions. First, our democracy now and our institutions of democracy in this country do not enjoy the confidence of our people in the way they did. That confidence is declining. We have to be part of the reform that reconnects politics with people in this country. If we do not, our democratic institutions will fall into atrophy and may suffer further in the decline of the confidence of the people of this country. If noble Lords do not realise that, they do not realise just how difficult the current situation is in Britain.
We in this Chamber cannot leave this to others to do. We must be part of that reform, modernisation, reconnection and democracy. It is said that this House does its job as a revising Chamber well. So it does. It is allowed to revise, change, amend legislation, but is it allowed to deal with the really big things? It does the small things well, but is it constructed in a way that would prevent a Government with an overwhelming majority in the other place taking this country to an unwise and, as we now know, probably illegal war? No, it would not because it did not. I cannot imagine that the decision to introduce the poll tax and the decision to take this country to war would have got through a Chamber elected on a different mandate and in a different period, or if there had been a different set of political weights in this Chamber from the one down the other end.
The truth of the matter is that we perform the function of a revising Chamber well, but that is not our only function. We are also part of the checks and balances in this country. The fact that we do not have democratic legitimacy undermines our capacity to act as a check and balance on the excessive power of the Executive backed by an excessive majority in the House of Commons. That is where we are deficient and what must be mended.
The case is very simple to argue. In a democracy, power should derive from the ballot box and nowhere else. Our democracy is diminished because this place does not derive its power from democracy and the ballot box but from political patronage—the patronage of the powerful. Is it acceptable in a democracy that the membership of this place depends on the patronage of the powerful at the time? We are diminished in two ways. We are diminished because we do not perform the function that we need to perform of acting as a check and a balance on the Government, and we do not do so because we are a creature of the Government’s patronage. I cannot believe that noble Lords find that acceptable in this Chamber .
A noble Lord: Time.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: Perhaps noble Lords will forgive me, I will finish now. I have already strained my time but I ask for patience. The Leader of the House is right. We have spent 100 years addressing reform in this House. It is time to understand why that is necessary—both to make our place in modern democracy and to fulfil our proper function to provide a check and balance on an Executive who may get too powerful. We turned our hand to this 100 years ago; it is time to finish it now.
I am a left-winger. I went to an anti-poll tax protest, by myself, when I was (I think) eight (I had to go home early because it went past my bedtime). I think that the two greatest governments of the last seventy years were the Atlee government and the first Wilson government. I’ve been a Guardian reader since before primary school (albeit with occasional dalliances with the Independent). I’ve been hugged by Billy Bragg at anti-fascist rallies and devoured Tony Benn’s Arguments For Socialism when I was in school. I wanted to join Young Labour when I was in primary school. I’m a member of Amnesty and Greenpeace, I’ve played anti-fascist benefit gigs, delivered leaflets for Hope Not Hate. I’ve been on the dole, and I’ve worked in the NHS. I love Mark Thomas, Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy. A few years ago a few online friends and I had a detailed discussion about Margaret Thatcher – specifically trying to draw up a rota so that those who wished to dance on her grave would not be inconvenienced by those who wished to piss or shit on it. I’m a lefty.
I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats, but the first two times I voted for them – in 1997 and 2001 – I did so with a sense of residual guilt because of having been raised all my life to believe that the reason Thatcher won in 83 and 87 was because the SDP split the left vote. It’s only over the last six or seven years that I’ve defined myself as a Liberal Democrat (and more recently as a liberal) rather than as a disaffected Labour supporter.
In short, working with the Tories is about as appealing to me as testicular cancer, and while I see the need for the coalition, I am very, very dubious about it. I am precisely the sort of person, in fact, that Labour should be trying to win over.
Now I’ll be frank – no matter what, I’m not going to vote Labour in the next election, because the last government was so outright evil. I simply won’t support mass-murdering torturers who, among other things, removed the right to a duty lawyer when arrested, brought in 28-day detention without trial, made it politically acceptable to blame immigrants for eveything, and destroyed huge swathes of the NHS ( in the first ten years of the Labour government, on average more than two psychiatric beds a day were lost – at one point when I was working at a hospital, we had ten more psychiatric patients on our ward than we had beds for).
But I might be persuaded to vote Labour in the election after that, if I happened to live in a Labour/Tory marginal. And if the next election is fought under a preferential system, as I sincerely hope, then you might well want me to give you my second preference. And even if neither of those is the case, it’s entirely possible we will have another hung parliament again relatively soon, in which you might want to work with the Liberal Democrats (and would need the support of the membership).
But rather than try to persuade me to look more favourably upon your party, most of what I’ve seen from both your Parliamentarians and your membership (with a few honourable exceptions among the members – if you’re a Labour member who I’m in any kind of regular contact with, I’m not talking about you here) has been designed to make me, and those like me, ever more determined to stick with the Lib Dems and stay as far away from Labour as possible.
Now, I’m not talking here about the normal politics – even though Labour would have made cuts were they in power, *of course* they’re going to attack the government for them now. That’s what opposition parties do. And I’m not talking about the normal dirty tricks, going back on manifesto commitments to get at the other side, accusations of gerrymandering and so on. That’s all par for the course, and while it’s not nice it’s something all parties are guilty of (I can’t actually think of any examples where the Lib Dems have done so, but I’m sure Labour can). I’m talking about a few main things. If you do these, you won’t have my support, but you’ll at least have my *respect*:
1) Admit you were wrong on civil liberties and the ‘war on terror’. These two things are areas where Labour got things so utterly, horribly, catastrophically wrong, both pragmatically and – what is worse – morally, that there can be no excuse. I *should not* be listening to Kenneth Clarke – a man whose last period in charge of justice and civil liberties I viewed at the time with horror – and thinking “It’s nice to have a moderate in this job after those horrific authoritarian Labour ministers”. No amount of apologies and meae culpae can make up for the horrors inflicted by the last government, but if delivered sincerely enough they might at least persuade us that you won’t do it again.
2) Stop dismissing the gains the Lib Dems got out of the coalition agreement. The *LAST* thing you want is for people to start thinking the Tories aren’t really so bad. All that will achieve is all those who avoided voting Tory last time because of scary folk-memories of Thatcher (a diminishing number anyway) thinking “Well, this government weren’t so bad, and since the Lib Dems had no real influence I’ll just vote Tory this time”. A HUGE amount of your support is predicated on “Ooh, Tories, scary!”, so it’s in your interest to give the Lib Dems credit for as many ‘nice’ things as you can from the coalition government – even (or perhaps especially?) when they weren’t Lib Dem ideas. That way those who like the current government will at least not vote Tory over Lib Dem next time (I assume everyone’s agreed that a Tory majority would be even worse) while those who don’t like it will turn away from the Lib Dems and towards Labour because they had so much influence and it stil turned out badly.
3) and this is the most important… STOP IT WITH THE HOMOPHOBIC SHIT, RIGHT NOW!. The constant ‘jokes’ about Cameron and Clegg being ‘in a civil partnership’ are, frankly, sickening. No true Liberal – no decent human being – will have the slightest respect for anyone making jokes like that. Anyone making that kind of joke is, firstly, showing themselves up as homophobic, and thus nobody any liberal (or any decent human being) could vote for, and secondly showing they have the mentality of a sniggering schoolboy, which doesn’t lead to a great deal of trust in their ability to run the country.
The coalition government presents Labour with a real opportunity to make themselves more attractive, both to future voters and to the Lib Dems as a future potential coalition partner. Instead, they appear to be sinking and trying to pull the Liberal Democrats down with them (and, it must be said, succeeding somewhat in the latter if opinion polls are to be believed).
Next election we *could* have a choice between the Tories, a Labour party who’ve admitted their mistakes and reformed, and a Lib Dem party with experience in government. Or we could have a choice between a still-unelectable New Labour, a Tory party who now appear like good guys because they can take credit for Lib Dem achievements, and a shattered Lib Dem party who the public at large see as a Tory appendage. The second option there does not sound like a good one for Labour *or* the Lib Dems – or for the left in general, or for the country.
I have a number of Labour friends who are convinced that the Labour party can be the party of Atlee and Bevan, the party that gave us the NHS and the Open University, the party that legalised homosexuality and ended the death penalty. That party is no longer my party, and I doubt it ever will be – too much of my political identity is now firmly Liberal, and that’s not going to change – but it was a good party, and a necessary voice in British politics. But at the moment, you’re the party of Iraq and torture, of ID cards and detaining people in psychiatric wards when they’re untreatable, of “British jobs for British workers” and homophobic jokes, of Hazel Blears and David Blunkett.
Take a look at yourselves in the mirror, and ask yourselves – “Is this really who I want to be?” You could be so much more…