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Saturday, 17 July 2010

Lib Dem "unease" showing; Clegg to host "crisis summit"

According to the BBC website, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is to address MPs, peers and councillors at an "away day" aimed to address concerns expressed by some senior Lib Dems about the direction of coalition policy.

The planned rise in VAT and the decision to axe 700 new school building projects are suggested as reasons for potential dissatisfaction amongst Lib Dems, with Bob Russell's rebellion over VAT and the abstentions of former leaders Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell on key votes adding fuel to suspicions of disharmony in the ranks. Former Liverpool City Council leader Warren Bradley's rather unwise intervention in stating decisions taken in government could result in the party being "wiped out" at the next election has been picked up by the national media, even though it was in reference to peculiarly local pressures.

Since the formal coalition agreement was announced, there have been rumblings among the media that the partnership will be short lived and that the Lib Dems are "divided" or "compromised". It would appear there is some wishful thinking here on the part of the media, which seems anxious to suggest disharmony and disunity both between and within the parties of coalition. Using language such as "crisis summit" to describe policy dialogue between the cabinet and their colleagues in the legislature is unhelpful and misleading. What else did they expect other than for the Lib Dem leaders to consult with the party of crucial and difficult policy decisions?

As a Lib Dem member, I am realistic enough to recognise that it simply is not possible for our colleagues in government to gain all that we would like. We are not going to see everything in our manifesto translated into policy. We have some very difficult and complex decisions we have to make on issues such as student finance, the NHS and the economy in partnership with a Conservative Party which historically has not always seen eye-to-eye with us. That is the very nature of compromise, and of partnership government. That might not please the media - and will not always please our members, councillors and MPs - but it should be noted that Lib Dem participation in government has already led to some significant policy gains and is more than preferable to either the legacy of Labour or a Conservative majority government.

There is no "crisis" in the party. One MP voting against the party whip and a handful of abstentions does not constitute a rebellion. What does exist in a democratic Liberal party is a healthy appetite for discussion, accountability and positive influence. Obviously all Lib Dems are anxious not only that the coalition should work, but that it should work in the interests of the country in promoting a liberal agenda. This meeting is simply a means for the party to discuss its policy priorities and how to contribute effectively to the coalition's programme of reform. Nick Clegg and the cabinet should be applauded for facilitating an ongoing and open dialogue rather than being criticised for creating a non-existent "crisis".

As Jeremy Browne told the Daily Politics show: "I am looking forward to celebrating the Lib Dems being in government for the first time in 70 years and demonstrating emphatically that when people said that hung Parliaments led to weak government, and when people said the Lib Dems could not take hard-headed decisions in the national interest, they were wrong. We have debunked both those myths."

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