Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 11 March 2012

For the first time, I'm not sure I understand the Lib Dems #NHSBill

I've not been in Gateshead this weekend so maybe that's part of the problem but I am struggling to understand the actions of my party in the last couple of days.

As I posted yesterday I fear that the NHS bill could be highly damaging, politically for the Lib Dems and I had hoped that the party voting reps were going to vote to drop the bill. Instead what happened is that the reps voted by a small margin to debate the "Shirley Williams" amended bill and vote on that this morning. The result has been a somewhat muddled outcome where a modification which specifically removes the requirement for our parliamentarians to support the amended bill (tabled by Dr Evan Harris the former MP) was passed.

At first I was just relieved that an option to not vote for the bill was still possible but the more I have read, the more I am convinced that this will turn out to be a false hope. The consensus amongst commentators appears to be that this will not result in the bill falling and that seems to be the message coming from the leadership.

I have read comments such as this being a "clever compromise" allowing the party reps to demonstrate their feelings on the bill but without causing Nick Clegg "embarrassment". I have also seen some Lib Dems on Twitter and on various blogs whose opinion I usually respect claim that the result here is sensible and easy to understand.

I strongly disagree with both of these claims. It is not a clever compromise. If it results in the bill still going through then the public will not give a toss what contorted machinations our party went through this weekend. They will simply see that our party allowed the Lansley/Tory bill (in their perceptions) to pass. I'm not going to get involved in how many hundred amendments we have tabled and how much we may have improved it. As I said yesterday, the public do not trust the Conservative Party on the NHS and by a large margin they are blaming us for enabling them to "wreck" it. If we allow the bill to pass we could find ourselves almost wiped out in 2015. It will come up on the doorstep again and again and we will have little or no defence.

The current situation is not easy to understand or particularly sensible. It might seem like a good ruse by people who have been involved with the party and getting amendments to motions passed over many years or decades. This is perhaps where the fact that I only joined the party in 2008 could help. From an outsider's perspective it will appear to be neither of these things. No wonder it is being misreported as the party having voted against the NHS bill. Even a fair few members I have seen on Twitter don't seem to understand what has happened.

This is the first time in my almost 4 years as a Lib Dem that I don't really understand why my party is doing what it is doing on a major issue. I really do fear that unless our parliamentarians take the opportunity gifted to them by the voting reps today and stop this NHS bill, we will reap an electoral whirlwind.


Anonymous said...


George W. Potter said...

What basically happened is that there were two emergency motions on the NHS - one by the leadership backing the bill and one trying to kill the bill.

The leadership's emergency motion was entitled: Protecting the NHS - the Shirley Williams Motion. And appeared as such on the ballot paper to select which motion would be debated.

The leadership's motion won the ballot at the fourth round due to second and third preferences from people who'd backed the non-NHS related motions as their first choice. A lot of these people would probably have backed it because they saw Shirley's name attached to it.

In the actual debate on the emergency motion, about 90% of speakers were against it (and against the bill as a whole) and conference voted overall to delete the lines from the motion which committed the party to backing the NHS bill.

My assessment is that conference made the best of a bad motion.

Dave Eastham said...

Hi Mark,

I suggest you read Gareth Epps blog for one view of a slice of clarity

Dave Eastham

Jen said...

Sitting at the sidelines away from Gateshead, I think this is the kind of result you get when there are lots of different opinions and motivations in play. Which is what Lib Dem policy making tends to be about, rather than the simple top-down clarity of Red and Blue where the policy is whatever the leader feels like it being that day.

At the risk of dipping into the fine book of Liberal cliche, hasn't conference reached a conclusion that is neither one thing nor the other but somewhere in between?

The party neither warmly supports the NHS bill, nor feels it is right to jettison the whole thing.

A curate's egg of a bill, like most legislation, it has good things and bad things. Good and bad things would come of passing it; good and bad things would come of killing it.

It's hard for liberals to have a clear Yes or No to such a choice. Labour for instance would say: it's a bad bill but it's OUR bad bill so we support it. Liberals just don't respond as simply that...

Fiona Harmsworth said...

Thank you for this. You've made the situation a bit clearer. But I don't think the outside world will understand anything about divisions among Lib Dems. I think, as you say, it will just come across that the Lib Dems supported the bill. Which might come back to haunt them.

Anonymous said...

The lib dems will be wiped out in 2015 anyway...

Yours is not a mature political movement.

Not ready for, or comfortable with, the responsibilities of government.

If your former voters were happy with the results of this government I contend they will vote Conservatives; your weirdy-beardy sandal-wearing constituency will probably vote Green so that they can continue their comfortable state of continual opposition and loony lefty ideas that never have to be tested by government. Some will vote Labour, many will stay at home.

So who cares? The Lib Dems were destroyed by government. I can't think of any better epitaph for this joke of a 'motherhood and apple pie' two-faced, please everyone party.

Good riddance....

Anonymous said...

It's nice that my anonymous cohort above is being so constructive here.
Not to say he doesn't have a point.
In Oz', that is, that place "down under", y'know, "the colonies" per Total Recall, we had a party called the Democrats. The Democrats were, like the UK Liberal Party, were started by a former Tory, but slowly coalesced around more radical, "green" and student-based politics. Democrats were the students' party of choice. Democrats were the greenies' party of choice. And they consistently won sub-15% of the vote and were happy to snipe from the sidelines. Problem was they were really two parties -- these "radicals", and the old moderate Tories, just as the UK Liberal Party was -- only no one realised it.

Then they got the balance of power and while they never became PART of the conservative government here, they did make agreements, and helped the government introduce the dreaded GST (VAT for you Brits). It was a hated tax and the Democrats were vilified for helping introduce it. They couldn't cope, or, more precisely, their radical wing couldn't handle it and slowly tore the party to shreds. By the next election, there was two Democrat parties. By the election after that, there was none.

The Democrats were no more and now we have an actual radical Green Party who, again, hold the balance of power. So, what's the lesson. Anonymous may be right. If the party members are unable to "handle" being in government, they could tear the whole ship apart. BUT, it is also vitally necessary that a party like that also obey its supporters, because it is its supporters that got it there, not their coalition partner. And if that means dissolving the coalition, that may end Nick Clegg's ambitions, and that may damage the brand, but it might also prevent what the party members believe it stands for from being used to undermine the party.

But, maybe Anonymous is right. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe out of this, while the Lib-Dems are no more, maybe a new Green party comes of all this. Maybe you're all happy with this outcome. Parties come, and parties go. Whether the Lib-Dems survive entirely depends on how good an ear the likes of Mr Clegg have.

This is the more informative, more illuminating, less vitriolic edition of what anonymous wrote above. :)