Monday, 6 August 2012

Lib Dems MUST Punish this Betrayal, for the Sake of Decency in Politics

If all the rumours are true, as all those we assume to be in the know would appear to accept they are, the Conservatives are about to stab their Liberal Democrat partners in the back and betray their promise, enshrined within the terms of the Coalition Agreement, to support reform of the House of Lords.

Forget all the dishonest spin and weasel words about the Agreement making no reference to specific detail that is contained in the proposals that are now being made. If Conservative backbench unease was about detail it would have been possible for the two parties of government to have amended the proposals between them in such a way as to address any legitimate concerns. The bottom line is that a substantial body of opinion within the parliamentary Conservative Party is wedded to the whole notion of inequality and privilege in politics as are, to their eternal disgrace, most of the so-called "progressives" of the Labour Party. Not for nothing did Labour's Peter Hain describe the current Lib Dem-inspired attempt to reform the second chamber as a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The argument that now is the "wrong time" due to there being "other priorities" is also a cop out. There will always be economic issues to address. There will never be a time when there will not be one national or international concern or another which can be given priority over constitutional reform if we look hard enough for an excuse to place the issue onto the back burner for another hundred years. The bottom line is that we cannot claim as a society to be committed to fairness and equality of opportunity for as long as our institutions themselves are based upon patronage and favour.

The stark fact of the matter is that the Conservatives, having wrested Lib Dem support for their unpopular and ideologically driven austerity programme, given in good faith, are now preparing to renege on their promise to their partners to honour their side of the bargain. It is a thing that the big parties do. As somebody who was Leader of a minority group at the London Borough of Hounslow in coalition with the Conservatives from 2006 to 2010 the pattern of behaviour is instantly familiar to me.

I have only bad news for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. The situation will get worse. As the next general election begins to approach their partners will figure that it will become increasingly difficult for them to cut and run. Throw a few spanners into the works, employ a few delaying tactics to stretch things out for a year or two, and suddenly it will have become nigh on impossible for the Lib Dems to abandon the coalition without being accused of extreme cynicism in the run-up to an election.

The fear of heavy electoral losses, itself a consequence of Lib Dem participation in the coalition, will also play heavily on the minds of the party's elected members when it comes to contemplating taking the very drastic step of forcing an early election by walking away from a one-sided coalition. Self-interest will almost inevitably win the day and so the coalition will limp on grumpily until 2015 at which time the Lib Dems will lose most of their seats, dispense with their leader and set about the long, painstaking but at some point probably successful task of placing some distance between themselves and this whole regrettable episode and eventually regaining lost ground.

What seems clear to me is that the big parties attract and encourage a mentality in which intrigue, behind-the-scenes plotting and betrayal are considered a necessary and inevitable feature of political discourse and one which some of those involved actually find quite exciting. Just behold for a moment the smug, fatuous grin on the face of the career politician on Question Time or Newsnight as he or she smarmily avoids answering a question and you will clearly see for yourself what I mean - these people actually believe that by the practice of spin and deceit they are in some way being clever rather than just deceitful.

In the course of its betrayal the senior partner will have powerful allies. In Hounslow it was senior officers of the Council, not necessarily supportive of the Conservatives but wedded to the old establishment practices to which they had become accustomed under Labour and fearful of the radical agenda promoted by the Community Group on the Council which I led. In the case of the government it will be the largely Conservative press, and we can be sure that between now and 2015 the Daily Mail and other such esteemed organs of the establishment will be drip-feeding us juicy titbits of information, and non-information, about the junior coalition partner for our edification.

Meanwhile another plank of the Coalition Agreement concerns proposed electoral boundary changes, due to be introduced before the next election, which will favour the Conservatives at the expense of the Lib Dems and the Labour Party. The rationale of the changes is that they will bring more integrity to the process of government by rectifying inequalities that have developed within the present alignment of constituency seats.

Through their betrayal over Lords reform the Conservatives will have demonstrated that they have no interest in bringing more integrity to government, nor in rectifying inequality. As such the Liberal Democrats will no longer have any moral obligation to support the proposed changes.

Furthermore, the Conservatives will already have set the precedent that coalition promises need not be honoured.

It is almost certainly too late for the Lib Dems to reverse the hemorrhaging of their own support that their participation in the coalition government has brought about. Nevertheless it is essential that that loss of support is not exacerbated by the complete loss of credibility that will ensue should they roll over and simply accept the bad faith shown to them by their untrustworthy partners.

In my view it is of critical importance that the Lib Dems punish the impending betrayal by withdrawing their support for boundary changes and making it crystal clear why they have done so. Their partners will whine like stuck pigs and no doubt some of them will genuinely be too stupid to understand why it has happened, in the same way as some of the Conservatives on Hounslow Council were shocked when we failed to support their 2010 budget following the Mogden debacle, when our partners refused to back us in our quarrel with chief officers over the nuisance caused to residents by a local sewage plant "managed" by Thames Water (which has donated money to the Conservative Party).

Not only will such a response be crucial if the Liberal Democrats are to maintain any dignity and self-respect at all, but I also truly believe that punishing underhandedness and betrayal will send precisely the right message to the spinners and backstabbers who seem to dominate modern party politics that their way doesn't actually pay.

In other words it will, in the long run, be beneficial not only to the Lib Dems but indeed to all those politicians, including those within the Conservative and Labour parties, of which I have no doubt there are many, who do actually appreciate the importance of good faith and integrity in our politics.

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