The events of the past few days have shone a light on the workings of the Lib Dems in government and the priorities of the party in general and its activists. Their actions both at their spring conference in Gateshead and in Parliament tell us an awful lot about their attitudes and motivations.
At the spring conference, members voted not to debate an emergency motion proposing that the party bring about the withdrawal or defeat of the Health & Social Care Bill, and instead debated one backed by party grandee Shirley Williams which called for Lib Dem peers to support a third reading of the bill in the Lords. Votes at a Lib Dem conference become party policy so the immediate direction of the party was at stake. The motion was defeated, widely reported as a blow to the party leadership in their efforts to make the bill law. However, the wording of the two motions makes a massive difference to the final effect of an overall vote against the bill. Whereas a vote in favour of the motion to drop the bill would have resulted in that becoming party policy and effectively ending the chances of the coalition managing to push it through, a vote against the motion calling on support for the bill’s 3rd reading does not result in opposition to the bill becoming the party’s official policy stance. It merely means that supporting the 3rd reading doesn’t become official party policy. In the Commons a couple of days later, two votes of no confidence in the Health Bill after Labour’s Opposition Day debate were defeated as Lib Dem MPs voted en masse to support the bill, as their party conference’s decisions allowed them to. The suggestion that a factor in supporting the bill has been the irritant nature of lobbying by members of the public is breathtaking in its perversity. Likewise the rallying call in Gateshead that to reject the bill would be a victory for Labour. Surely that doesn’t matter if to do so is a requirement of their Liberal values and consciences?
The sequence of events were no accident. Lib Dem members wished to signal their disapproval of a hugely unpopular bill which had appeared in none of the three major parties’ election manifestos. Indeed, the Prime Minister had expressly ruled out the actions encapsulated by the bill in his pre-election statements. David Owen has pointed out that the constitutional problems of the Bill do not end there; The Bill’s proposals had begun to be implemented before they had actually become law, and the Government is involved in a High Court case resisting the publication of the Risk Register associated with the Bill, as ruled necessary by the Information Commissioner, until after it has been passed as law. Though the Tories do not seem to gather the visceral public opposition to the Bill, whereby a requirement to pay for some treatments would mean for many not merely the need to buy medical insurance but an inability to receive those treatments, Lib Dems are aware that their support for this is electoral poison. However, to make opposition to the Bill party policy
would break up the coalition, ending the brief taste of power handed to them by the hung parliament of 2010. Cynically and hypocritically, while being unhappy about the Bill, they ensured that a motion was not debated which could result in party policy becoming opposed to it, instead arranging a safe motion for them to oppose, making them appear rebellious in a vain scrabble to maintain future electoral prospects without that having any consequences for their position in power.
They have refused to release their death grip on government and its trappings in any circumstances, and a death grip it most certainly is; they head for electoral disaster in the hope they will retain enough seats to again be able to form a coalition in another hung parliament. Their initial plan for this parliament, to put up with anything for long enough to gain the change in electoral system which would forever transform the balance of power in their favour, was made obsolete by the defeat of the AV referendum. Now their formula to retain power requires them not to be more successful in the polls but merely to remain the 3rd biggest party, with their chance of challenging either Labour or Conservatives gone. To fail to achieve even that would be a hitherto-unimagined disaster. Chasing electoral popularity gains them nothing any more, but hanging grimly onto power at least maintains them where they are. Posturing against government policy may salve a few consciences, but when they deliberately throw away the chance to defeat that policy they lose the right to claim to be anything but cynical power-grubbing enablers of those they give the pretence of opposing.