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Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Hughes calls for Lib Dem coalition veto

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes has argued that his party's MPs should have a veto on policies put forward by the coalition government.

The first hundred days of coalition government have seen the Liberal Democrats exert considerable influence over the government's policy direction. However, the government has made some decisions that many Lib Dem members and MPs feel understandably uncomfortable with - most obviously in relation to the VAT increase and spending cuts.

In addition to suggesting Lib Dems should have a veto - "we should be able to say 'no, we can't go down this road'" - Mr Hughes also suggested that there existed a genuine possibility for a future coalition between the Lib Dems and Labour. He stated that such an alliance was still "on the agenda", possibly as early as the next general election in 2015.

Some of this is understandable. Simon Hughes is, of course, keen to offer both a distinctive voice on policy and reassurance to members concerned about the performance of the coalition government. He was, after all, elected as deputy leader promising to "fight every day for the principles which underpin our party". No-one doubts the authenticity and passion of these sentiments, and I am convinced Mr Hughes' motivations are to see his party maintain its distinctive position on key policy issues.

However, on one level a veto would be purely academic. As John Redwood points out on his blog, even "if all Lib Dem backbenchers vote against a coalition government proposal, even with Labour support, the government will still win the vote...it is only if more than 40 Conservatives vote against the government and Labour opportunistically agrees that the government might lose. Democratic politics is about numbers as well as arguments." While a veto might allow Lib Dem MPs the opportunity to "make a stand" on principle, in reality it would not in all likelihood make much of an effective difference in relation to policy outcomes. Significantly, however, it would be likely to undermine the collective responsibility of the government - and relationships between ministers and their respective parties.

I strongly believe introducing a veto could have a destabilising effect on the coalition. While I do not, like Mr Hughes, have any love for the Conservative Party, there should be a recognition that we are now locked into the coalition agreement and that Liberal Democrats will do everything in their power to imbue government policy with a strong liberal ethos.

Of course, Mr Hughes is correct in asserting that alternative arrangements should be considered after the next General Election. I would hope that Liberal Democrats can demonstrate the ability to work with any party when the national interest demands it. That is mature politics.

What is not mature politics is for our party's deputy leader to apparently undermine Nick Clegg's description of the Tory-Lib Dem government as a "long-term" arrangement, to suggest personal preference for co-operation with a Labour Party which was clearly uninterested in such working arrangements and to effectively question the leadership's decision to enter into government with the Conservatives. The timing of Hughes' statement about potential future relationships with Labour suggests his personal dissatisfaction with current arrangements and reinforces the mistaken perception that the Lib Dems are struggling to retain their distinctive and progressive identity in government. It certainly contributes to public doubts about the Lib Dems' role in government.

Simon Hughes' contribution may have been more helpful if it had perhaps focused not on the rights and wrongs of post-election manoeuvrings, but on Lib Dem achievements and our prospects in government. There is a great deal more to responsible coalition government than for the minor partner to be afforded the freedom to consistently oppose the policy of the larger. There are certainly more positive means the party can use to ensure the public remain aware of our distinctive policy positions. Mr Hughes must forget the recent past and has to recognise that he can not allow himself to be perceived as either disloyal or a Labour sympathiser. And those of us who, like him, are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the coalition's performance must do more than simply express disagreement.

As a party with lengthy experience in opposition, we have to become accustomed to our new role and ensure that we remain a key part of an effective government. We have an opportunity to make a significant contribution in forging a farier and more liberal society, but it will take people of vision with a realistic outlook - not loose canons with one foot in the past.

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