This morning, Danny Alexander repeated a line on BBC Radio 5 Live used by Vince Cable a few weeks ago:
“We didn’t win the election. We came third. We’re part of a coalition government. We’ve worked to ensure that as part of the discussions we’ve had that we’ve got a system that is fairer, more progressive.”
I’m not sure this will be a fruitful line for Liberal Democrat Ministers to use in respect of tuition fees, or any other difficult policy discussions they’ll have in the coming years*.
Firstly, it implies that, in the extreme, it is acceptable for two (or more) political parties to campaign on one set of policy proposals but – in the event of a hung Parliament – to ignore all of them in order to form a Government with a working majority. Is that really democratic?
Now if that isn’t what Alexander or Cable meant, then surely their position has to be that Liberal Democrat MPs will support policies on those areas where there is common agreement between the two coalition parties, and on any other issues/policy proposals they’ll abstain from voting or argue they should be left off the agenda for this Parliament.
But that’s not what they’re proposing on tuition fees. At the very least they’re proposing that Lib Dem ministers – the government bit of the Parliamentary party – votes one way, and the rest can do what they want. This would technically be consistent with the statement in the Coalition Agreement on fees:
“If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.”
However, it does invite the question: what are Liberal Democrat ministers for if they abandon their policy platform for Government office? Are they even technically Liberal Democrats?
It implies that the role of the Lib Dems in the Coalition is to (a) provide a working majority for the Conservatives and (b) make essentially Conservative proposals a bit fairer. That makes the Lib Dems look a bit pathetic really, and is contrary to the posturing of Nick Clegg and others about their role in the Coalition (see Clegg’s conference speech, for example).
Secondly, it weakens the positive argument FOR policies which were in their manifesto. In future, Lib Dems might well argue that policy X is right and was something that was in their manifesto at the last election for which they have a mandate. But it seems a fair response to say that it is irrelevant what policy proposals they had in their manifesto on the basis that they didn’t win the election – they came third.
They can’t have it both ways with respect to their manifesto.
The Lib Dems really need to work on the justification for this political car crash.
*More of this sort of stuff and the likelihood of the current Government lasting a full Parliament will probably reduce.
Alex Baker is Secretary of the Young Fabians.