Weak In Review: The Lib Dems’ Deal-breaker Is Just As You’d Expect

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg pictured with Zimbabwean PM Morgan Tsvangirai, described by US diplomats as a “weak and indecisive” figure providing political cover for a ruthless autocrat under a token power-sharing agreement.

[First published in The Morning Star, 19/01/13]

So the Lib Dems have finally drawn their line in the sand.

Not the regressive tax system they pledged to scrap, only to trade a mansion tax for a VAT hike; not the “fair chance for every child”, replaced with increasingly desperate child poverty and real-terms school funding cuts under the Pupil Premium; not the university tuition fees they vowed to wipe out, then trebled (and are now thinking of pledging to cut again). Not even hiving off the NHS and slashing its funding, generating broad revulsion and derision even in their own conference halls.

No, the Liberal Democrats’ first front-bench revolt in three years of coalition rule turned out to be a procedural bill that would diminish their own prospects for re-election — a decision that, like their leader Nick Clegg, somehow comes across as both cynicial and naively optimistic at the same time.

Gerrymandering has become an increasingly bitter battle among Westminster’s parties as voter apathy continues: turnout has not recovered from the record lows following the rise of New Labour, plummeting from 71.4 percent in 1997 to 59.4 percent in 2001. But where most countries reflect the national mix of opinion with proportionally represented parties, Westminster’s self-serving neoliberal consensus means the only serious debate is over how exactly to maximise one’s share of an increasingly stale and stodgy pie.

Essentially the bill read this week would redraw Britain’s electoral map, reducing the number of constituencies from 650 to 600 — meeting the Lib Dems’ demand to cull the number MPs. But ironically the move would eliminate many of the smaller constituencies that Lib Dems managed to swing in 2010. Meanwhile the map, devised by the non-partisan Boundary Commissions, would conveniently sap Labour’s historical advantage by surrounding several Labour strongholds with broad swathes of Tory heartland. All in all it’s believed the Tories would become likely contenders for another 20 extra seats in the House of Commons under the changes — thereby restoring them to Britain’s fine old tradition of autocratic rule.

Hence Monday’s stand-off in the House of Lords, where six of the Lib Dems’ seven ministers led their peers in an alliance with Labour (the seventh, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was obliged to table the bill himself but then abstained from the vote).

Being the House of Lords, they were unable to explicitly reject the bill — but instead 72 of the Lib Dems’ 90 peers backed an amendment sidelining the review until after the next election, winning by a margin of 69 votes.

Noone comes out of this looking good. The Lib Dems reneged on a cause they’d previously agreed to out of naked self-interest, while Labour’s amendment clearly looks after its own.

But the ensuing Tory outrage – accusing the Lib Dems of “cheating” and “a great political sulk” are either disingenuous or extremely telling: the Tories themselves effectively engineered the split by crafting a bill that they knew would consolidate Conservative power at their partners’ expense, only to splutter and fume when the Lib Dems decided not to cheerfully traipse off into oblivion after all. Selling your soul is one thing, but usually the devil doesn’t then demand his baubles back.

Meanwhile a spokesman for David Cameron suggested he would try to force Clegg & co. to reject the amendment with a further vote once it returned to the Commons.

“The PM remains of the view that we should have fewer MPs to cut the cost of politics, and more equal size constituencies so that people’s votes have more equal weight,” the spokesman said.

That comment all by itself is likely to further rankle Lib Dems, given the PM’s star role in consistently scuppering their plans for voting reform. When Lib Dems first pitched a coalition, Cameron refused to entertain their plans for a Single Transferable Vote. They compromised. After granting them their 2011 referendum on switching to an Alternative Vote system, Cameron railed against it as “obscure, unfair and expensive”. They lost. The Lib Dems then pushed for elected members of the House of Lords, described by Clegg as a “fundamental part” of the coalition agreement. Cameron airily declared he’d been unable to bring his backbenchers around. The bill died. The Lib Dems gave up. And then their partners introduced a bill that, when coupled with dismal polling, would likely banish them and their lukewarm dreams of electoral reform from the halls of power forever.

Two years ago Clegg was caught over a PA, jokily telling Cameron “we won’t have anything to bloody disagree on in the bloody TV debates.” Clegg subsequently put on a very solemn expression and spoke soberly of the need for good faith bargaining and finding common ground, etc. etc. Now halfway through their term, the only bloody disagreement so far has been a mere turf war.

In fact Clegg made another telling slip-up the very day after this week’s vote, accidentally reference to a plaque he was unveiling as a “memorial” to the Liberal party.

“Not memorial, this sign of our rich party’s history”, he hastily corrected himself.

But he probably had it right the first time.

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