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353 – Leaders on a different planet
08 June 2012 (13:35:18)

Tony Greaves wonders whether anyone at the top of the Liberal Democrats understands why government policies have left the party in such a dire place

The Budget was the moment when everyone could see just how much the Liberal Democrat parliamentarians are living on a different planet.

The advance leaks were meant to show that we were really calling the shots. Our MPs were dragooned into turning up en masse for the Chancellor’s speech and waving their order papers like a busload of Madonna groupies.

That evening, Danny Alexander came to the Federal Policy Committee with a tale of reflected triumph, and the following day the Commons chief whip was still drooling about it all and how the Tory backbenchers really had not liked it.

In the world of Planet Westminster, it seemed like a real Liberal Democrat success. The only trouble is, they got it wrong. Budgets are always properly judged a week or two after the event. This one was soon seen as a disaster and one that contributed to awful council election results in May.

So why did it happen? Put on one side the nonsense about a ‘pasty tax’, which was really just bad PR. The real damage was done by the cut in the 50p tax rate and the so-called granny tax (which Alexander told the FPC was a victory for Liberal Democrat policy!). Both these appear to have been quid pro quos wrapped up with genuine Liberal Democrat policy wins, combined with more lousy PR.

It seems that the Budget was largely negotiated in the Budget Quad, a two-a-side meeting at the top of the coalition. On the Liberal Democrat side were Nick Clegg and Alexander, for the Tories the prime minister and the chancellor. Our dynamic duo had their eyes firmly locked on the personal allowance – taking lower earners out of income tax at a faster rate than had been planned. Clegg upped the stakes by going public on this laudable aim, and no doubt something had to give.

‘Something’ was the 50p tax rate. But another longstanding Liberal Democrat aim was to align the personal allowance rates for earners with those for pensioners. The Budget freezes the personal allowance for existing pensioners but reduces it for those approaching retirement. Hence the hysterical reaction to the ‘granny tax’.

MILLIONAIRES’ BUDGET

All this made it easy for the opposition and tabloids, and lots of pressure groups, to denounce it all as a millionaires’ budget funded at the expense of pensioners and the poor, many of whom (as canvassers will testify) were appalled even though it did not affect them personally. As for us, we were seen not as the goodies making the nasty Tories swallow Liberal Democrat fairness but as co-conspirators launching another attack on the ordinary people on behalf of the bankers, the oligarchs and all the rest of the greedy rich.

The point of this disastrous story is that it is so typical of the way the coalition works, and the way legislation itself is developed and promoted by people who appear to have little ability to look at the overall picture and ask and understand how it will go down with the party and in the country – and even less ability to analyse the detail and apply common sense questions to suss out the banana skins. Our ministers are busy people but they are supposed to have teams of people to support them and do this kind of donkey work. I am not impressed with the competence of these people.

Ordinary legislation starts with a few people at the top – in a department, in top-level negotiations (the Quad again though Oliver Letwin replaces Osborne on general coalition matters), rubber-stamping by the Cabinet, then down through the Houses via the whips. There is a Public Bill Committee that seems to consist of leaders and whips from both parties and both Houses, which oversees bills as they go through parliament. It also has to approve any changes the government agrees to make in either House.

The Liberal Democrat party institutions all have to fit into this already complex system. The parliamentary committees with their co-chairs, beavering away within the bureaucracy to try to Liberal Democrat-proof government proposals. The Federal Policy Committee vainly thrashing away on the margins. Party bodies trying to find some way of getting their views listened to. The parliamentary parties and backbench members trying to cope in a dysfunctional system.

As a bill goes through the Commons, there are less-than-adequate opportunities for MPs to get involved. A couple will get on to the Standing Committee on the bill and may be able to get a handful of amendments debated. By the time the bill gets to Report stage, the main debates will be on a few set-piece themes carved up between the opposition and the government.

The chance for any other Liberal Democrats to be called will be few and, like the Committee stage, it will be strictly timetabled, so typically much of the bill will not be debated at all. But the government may respond with its own amendments and, in some cases, such as the Health and Social Care Bill, these may be very substantial.

By the time the bill gets to the Lords, the bill team (the departmental civil servants working on a particular bill), their ministerial teams and the government high-ups will hope it is a done deal. The Lords is useful as a place where the government may table some remaining amendments and iron out wrinkles and that will be that, or so they may think. Our party leadership and whips in both Houses will think it is our job to push it through in a loyal coalition manner. To be seen in the lobbies but not heard in the chamber.

But there will be a team of Liberal Democrat peers working on any bill on behalf of the group (as opposed to the government), probably led by the relevant co-chair and including the members who usually take an interest in that area. These are the people who know most about the subject and who will often be keenest to see changes and extract promises from ministers about how it will be implemented. As far as the Lords are concerned, the whole process starts again.

Liberal Democrat peers look at bills as a whole and in detail, and in Committee (where, whether it’s in a Committee of the Whole House or a Grand Committee, any peer can turn up and take part) the bill will get a far more thorough scrutiny than it has had in the Commons. Amendments will be debated by the bucket load (though few go to a vote). Depending on negotiations with the government, they may be retabled on Report. There will often be shoals of government amendments before the bill leaves the Lords. All this will take place against a background of clear disapproval on the part of our leadership in the Lords, which tells us we are “doing the Labour Party’s job for them”.

The opportunities for conflict and difficulties are obviously huge, but the experience of the past year is that real changes can be obtained by a combination of activism in the chamber and negotiation behind the scenes. The Public Bodies Bill was gutted. The Localism Bill was significantly amended without a single government defeat in the Lords. Liz Barker set out in the last Liberator (#352) ways in which Health and Social Care Bill was significantly improved. There were even some concessions made during the awful Welfare Reform, and Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bills, though both were more difficult because at their heart are radical cuts in spending.

LITTLE-OBSERVED BUBBLE

But this all takes place in a little bubble within the wider bubble of the House of Lords, which is itself usually a little observed and understood sub-bubble of the wider Westminster Bubble. But it too often takes place without enough help and support from Liberal Democrats in other parts of Westminster, though real efforts have been made to improve communications. And it all happens on a completely different planet from the world outside, whether in the party, in campaign groups, or people in general.

I wrote last July in Liberator 347 protesting that the party was still floundering. Re-reading that piece, I am astonished by how little has changed. Indeed, the position is even worse. Morale in the country is patchy, membership is widely known to have plummeted in spite of party HQ’s pathetic attempts to keep the figures secret, and we have just been hammered again in local elections, not least in the places that gave us most credibility in the previous two decades – Scotland and the cities of the North of England. At all levels, there is a sense that people haven’t got a clue what to do about it all.

We are still at the mercy of rampaging Tory warlords such as Gove and Lansley, pursuing their agendas regardless of anyone else. We are still struggling to cope with unpleasant legislation handed down from on high (and who knows what nasty little surprises await us all from the recent Queen’s Speech?). The Lords party is still struggling to come to terms with its three stated but contradictory aims of supporting the coalition, promoting Liberal Democrat policies and principles, and maintaining the proper role of the House of Lords as a scrutinising and improving chamber.

Attempts to improve the dire communications within the Liberal Democrats have all been about people at the top telling worried members and activists why the top people are right and the worried ranks are wrong, There is still little explanation of the trade-offs and compromises of coalition, why and how positions have been reached.

The Tories may now be in more disarray than us, particularly on the green benches. The BBC’s James Cameron commenting on the recent election for their backbench 1922 Committee in the Commons reported one veteran Tory describing “different tables in the tea rooms, rows in the corridors. It is getting very nasty” and comparing it to the time of Maastricht. This may be amusing but it is not helping us at all.

We are still being lumbered with stuff that is politically bad for our party. Whether we have any more core vote to piss off is a matter for debate, but we still seem to be going out of our way to upset traditionally supportive lobbies such as civil liberties and the environment.

It seems that, in spite of changes in personnel, the people around the leadership – the special advisers and other advisers – have no more idea of what this party stands for and what our activists will put up with than they had a year ago. Richard Reeves may, thankfully, have gone; but his successors seem no wiser. The bubble they work in may be more stratospheric even than the House of Lords, but it’s just as remote from what remains of our party and, more desperately, from the real world. And that is even without discussing the disaster that is the government’s ‘deficit reduction strategy’.

Tony Greaves is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords

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