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Commentary 334 – July 2009
13 July 2009 (09:21:16)


Should Liberal Democrat MPs have behaved worse than they did over expense claims?

That is only a semi-serious question – one difficulty the party had, as the expenses furore swept everything before it, was that it was not untainted but its MPs had done nothing so appalling that Nick Clegg could make examples of them, as David Cameron did with his moat and duck house owners.

The result was evident in the elections. The Lib Dems trod water with a slight fall in the European vote, a quite good increase against a Tory surge in the English shires – and a poll rating that varied little.

There was a time when the pre-merger Liberal Party would have exploited such a sudden loss of faith in the main parties without mercy.

Nowadays, Liberal Democrats are one of the main parties and were tarred with the same brush. The protest vote went instead to the Greens, UKIP, independents, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and, alarmingly, the BNP.

Get used to it. Lib Dems have never ceased to complain about the dominance of the two main parties while being entirely relaxed about the dominance of the three main ones. Any of the variants of voting reform being canvassed will see a further flourishing of smaller parties.

Public revulsion over expenses suddenly led to an unprecedented surge of interest in political and electoral reform. That leads to another semi-serious question – when will the Lib Dems mount a robust defence of first-past-the-post?

This is, after all, the system under which the party does best. Its record in fighting PR elections is awful – fewer councillors in Scotland under STV than under the old system, a wash-out in last year’s London elections and yet another under-performance in the European vote.

The Liberal Democrats cannot fight PR elections properly because their targeting strategy has gone too far and hollowed out the party in non-target areas, where it lacks presence and so has to rely on its patchy ability to be heard in national media.

Be careful what you wish for. A new voting system is essential, but the Lib Dems are in poor shape to exploit AV-plus fully, never mind STV in multi-member seats.

Yet they have to get into that shape because – changed voting system or not – the party cannot rely on chasing a diminishing pool of target seats and ought not to find such poor performances in PR elections acceptable.

That, as Liberator has long argued, means coming off the fence, taking risks and presenting a programme that might grab at least some people’s imagination and allegiance.

The timid approach of Make it Happen is now redundant. It might be only nine months old but that manifesto belongs to a vanished world in which market economics were unquestioned, most people were happy and the party did not wish to disturb them unduly.

Some encouragement can be drawn. The European campaign, had anyone heard it above the expenses din, was actually pro-European. ‘Stronger Together’ would have been a serviceable theme in normal times and far better than 2004’s cowardly effort, which treated the party’s support for the European Union as an embarrassment.

There has since been Nick Clegg’s change of mind on Trident and the increasingly successful efforts to engage the public with Labour’s menace to civil liberty, not to mention Vince Cable’s continuing stature on the recession.

It is no time for timidity because, once the expense issue dies down, the recession, climate change, authoritarianism and isolationism will all still be with us, and will be the subjects on which the party needs to be heard.

Before that, the public will want answers on cleaning up parliament. Gordon Brown’s National Council for Democratic Renewal, which sounds like the creation of some African coup leader, seems destined to fiddle with parliamentary procedure, which may be welcome but will not calm angry voters.

The only way to do that is thorough reform of the political, voting and expenses systems, of the kind the Lib Dems have a better claim to have supported than any other party.

Public anger over expenses is understandable because, while the money was small in terms of overall public spending (probably less than the notoriously profligate Ministry of Defence wastes most weeks), it looked as if MPs had awarded themselves a licence to print banknotes.

Nobody though died because of expenses, only a few backbenchers will lose their jobs, nobody’s liberty was reduced and nowhere was rendered uninhabitable.

The really serious mistakes made by politicians – the Iraq war, lax banking regulation, ID cards and inactivity on climate change – did not rouse public anger as have expense claims.

Can the Lib Dems make the case that these errors, along with misbehaviour over expenses, are all products of the same decayed and unaccountable political system and that they have the ideas and will to reform it? If not, someone else will.

The greatest danger of the expenses scandal is that it will destroy respect for all mainstream parties, allowing undesirables on the far right to grow. Any Lib Dem MP who claimed for something questionable should be ashamed for contributing to this atmosphere.

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