Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 7 June 2010

Can Lib Dems be in government and opposition simultaneously?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Simon Hughes (the favourite for the Lib Dem deputy leader position) has issued 10 proposals for Lib Dem MPs under coalition (see Lib Dem Voice for details). Most of his points seem to revolve around the Lib Dems have spokespeople outside government for various departments and ensuring they get a fair hearing.

I have been wondering for a little while now how the independent voice of the Lib Dems is going to be maintained but I wonder just how these proposals would work in practise. I am not sure how viable it is to be part of the government and also have spokespeople on subjects outside of government within the same party.

Having said all that, coalition politics is new to me and from what I have read these sort of arrangements have worked for e.g. Plaid Cymru in the Welsh Assembly so perhaps I am wrong and this is just something I need to get my head around.

We certainly do need a way to maintain our party's distinctive voice, I just worry that if we were to follow Hughes' suggestions that the electorate may get very confused about who is speaking for the party with some Lib Dem MPs bound by collective responsibility and others not both speaking "for the party" on the same issue.

One thing that I have considered is whether the strictures of collective responsibility could be further loosened. There are already specific issues on which the Lib Dems are going to be able to argue against the Conservatives and/or abstain on (e.g. AV vote, tuition fees being raised etc.). Maybe if the scope of this was extended further so distinctive Lib Dem positions could be laid out on other issues even if they were sometimes at odds with the government and that Lib Dem ministers were able to be honest about this then that could be a happy medium. Well maybe happy is the wrong word but perhaps an acceptable half-way house? This could actually be hailed as part of the "new politics" where ministers no longer have to pretend they agree with everything that everyone else in the government says and does.

This is just the kernel of an idea though. I am not really settled on what the best way forward for maintaining our distinct voice is and would be interested to hear other views.

What do you think?


dazmando said...

we do need to do something. I like Simons proposals. I do wonder if there would be moments when we argue in public with our own MP's who are ministers or if Lib Dems are accused of taking both sides or being indecisive or using both arguments as it suits them

Liberal Eye said...

This is certainly an important point and I imagine we should have several parallel strategies of which Simon's would be just one.

Another strategy is to strengthen our policy-making capability. We should not forget in the excitement of entering government for the first time in many decades that in fact our GE vote was distinctly lacklustre in the end. In short, we need to raise our game.

We have a policy-making process designed at the merger in a pre-Internet age and which, despite co-opting folk onto working parties, is remarkably top-down, closed and non-strategic.

What we need is a policy-focussed community blog somewhat like LDV but organised into themes so that ideas could more easily be developed and followed over many posts and over many months.

Done like LDV outside the formal Party structures, this would be fully 'deniable' and more easily able to think the unthinkable.

In effect we should crowdsource policy development.

Anonymous said...

You can't have it both ways. You could have had an agreement to support the Queens Speech and Budget, and policy areas where you agree, whilst remaining in opposition where you could vote against policies that really offend you. Given how much you all say you agree with the broad direction of Cameron's agenda, that would have been very workable.

But you chose a coalition agreement instead, and your leadership have stated they fully support it.

If you have independent spokespeople, who then end up trooping through the government lobby or abstaining (same thing in practice), you will just look disloyal, cynical, and weak. And why would the Tories put up with that - if you can speak and act against your own government, but then meekly abstain, what would stop them ignoring you, simply putting up pure Tory policies and using your signed agreement to make you abstain or dare bring the government down (although the 55% rule will mean you cannot now force a dissolution if the Tories renege on their part of the deal)?

You have already agreed policies on immigration and tuition fees - for just two examples - that you now cannot back out of, but that run contrary to what you claimed to believe in.

You will have to take responsibility for that, not pretend that you are still really in opposition. Your best bet, and most responsible behaviour, is to try and influence the coalition, but accept you have signed a pact to join a rightwing, conservative government. You never know, it might be popular with all those people whose income tax you'll cut. Not the unemployed, lowest paid, pensioners, and the ill admittedly, but the affluent middle classes will probably benefit a lot - especially if they're married.

Simon Hughes is simply positioning to be frontrunner for leader in the event it all goes wrong. It is so blatant, only your party activists cannot see it. Tories, Labour and everyone else can see this a mile off.

listentomother said...

What a load of old tosh. I imagine that you'll all gradually get to grips with the notion of coalition governments and how they change the nature of governmental debate.

A coalition government does not mean that the partners no longer have backbenchers who, at times, vehemently disagree with the front bench, whether it's from their own party or their partner party.

Moreover, once proper reform of the house kicks out the whipping system, this will happen more and more regularly and will become a natural element of healthy dissent, leading to the proper and thorough debate which is one of the major benefits of coalition government.