Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

How the Lib Dem response to the doctrine of "Collective Responsibility" is screwing us

Compare and contrast:

“Of course, there is no reliance on our support for a Coalition Agreement commitment for progress on unrelated or other significant parallel constitutional formations. I have said that. There is no link; of course, there is no link.”


"Lords reform and boundaries are two, separate parliamentary bills but they are both part of a package of overall political reform. Delivering one but not the other would create an imbalance – not just in the Coalition Agreement, but also in our political system.
Lords reform leads to a smaller, more legitimate House of Lords. Boundary changes lead to a smaller House of Commons, by cutting the number of MPs. If you cut the number of MPs without enhancing the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Lords all you have done is weaken parliament as a whole, strengthen the executive and its overmighty government that wins."

Both of these statements were made by Nick Clegg in the last few months. The first one was at a Select Committee hearing in April where he also specifically said the words "There is no formal link" between Lords reform and the boundary changes.

I highlight this, not to embarrass the leader of my party (there will be plenty of others in Labour and the Conservatives queueing up to do that) but to highlight how our approach to collective responsibility within the government is now screwing us over.

i have been arguing for a long time that in public our ministers should have been making it clear that there are things we are doing that we would not do were we governing alone. I think the electorate are mature enough to accept this. But instead our approach seems to be to essentially "own" the entire government programme and to argue in favour of every element of it. This then leads to a situation with for example the boundary changes where Clegg can be painted as "having been for it, before he was against it" which is very damaging in politics.

If the approach had been to consistently explain that we were supporting the boundary changes as part of an overall package of constitutional change and all of it needed to go through (which is a perfectly reasonable position) it wouldn't seem like we were going back on anything now.

To be fair to Clegg there are examples including in the evidence to that committee where he did try to make this link but there are too many other examples where he has said things like "There is no link". The position has been too muddled.

This is not the only area where this has happened. For example Clegg has been quoted in the past as saying that Andrew Lansley is the "right man for the job" of Health Secretary. That's strange because before the election surely he though Norman Lamb was the right man, otherwise why was he Lib Dem spokesperson for health? I wonder why he felt the need to say this? He could have worded it along the lines of Lansley getting on with the job he was appointed by the PM to do or similar without endorsing him above all other possible ministers.

In the inevitable post-mortems that will come whenever this coalition finally ends I hope that our approach to collective responsibility comes under a sharp spotlight and we learn some important lessons. We are a separate party with a distinct identity. We need to find a way to make this clear, even when we are sharing power with another party.


John Moss said...

The view that all elements of the "package" have to be passed into law is contradicted by the wording of the Agreement. If Laws, Huhne, Stunnell and Alexander had wanted that, they would presumably have inserted the wording, " a bill, whipped in both houses" in the section on Lords Reform as well as in the section on AV & boundary changes, but they didn't, did they?

Anonymous said...

Of course what you say is true, but I think the most damaging aspect of this will be that the party is getting itself into a position in which the issues it is really seen to care about are those connected with constitutional reform - and not only that, but issues connected with its own parliamentary representation.

People may well think that Lib Dem politicians are unwilling to honour their pledges to students or defend the NHS, and will stand and fight only when their own jobs are at risk.

Alex said...

Boundary review may not be linked to Lords Reform, but it is linked to the AV Referendum by the Coalition Agreement.

Clegg has had his AV Referendum, so he should now stick by the Coalition Agreement and deliver the Boundary Changes, irrespective of Lords Reform, which wan't in the Coalition Agreement.

He won't, of course.