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Friday, 1 October 2010

The real influence of the Liberal Democrats

In recent weeks, it's been impossible to escape from the well worn and surely exhausted arguments from the media and sections of the Labour Party that the Lib Dems have "sold out", etc. Yes, its tiresome. But there seems to be a determination by some to prove the theory correct that if you repeat a lie for long enough it eventually becomes accepted as truth.

After Ed Miliband's surprisingly responsible speech at his party's conference in which he refused to yield to the temptation to hurl accusations of betrayal at Nick Clegg, other Labour delegates have been less restrained. Some, clearly unable to grasp the basic concept of coalition, spoke of "a Conservative government being propped up by the Lib Dems". Others repeated the predictable line over "cuts"; one delegate was critical of our supposed "sell-out...for twenty-two government jobs". One went so far as to suggest that "we can never forgive [the Lib Dems]". Hmmm.

From the reasonable high of Ed Miliband's interesting speech, the Labour conference reached a low on Wednesday morning as meaningful political discussion was replaced with the most juvenile criticism of the Lib Dems. Some of it was plainly vitriolic; almost all of it ill-considered and lacking in factual basis. Labour has never been noted as the party of intellectual rigour but this was verging on the embarrassing. What could have been a stitmulating "debate" on free schools provided many delegates with an opportunity they couldn't refuse - the chance to stick the knife into Nick Clegg and his colleagues.

At least they've got over their pathological hatred of the Conservative Party.

It's counterproductive to argue with these people. But I would like to direct all those skeptical of the coalition to something that appeared last week on The Guardian website. It provides some pretty compelling evidence as to the reality of Lib Dem influence in government that even the fiercest of critics should take seriously.

The Guardian has conducted an audit of the coalition agreement. The findings confound those whose impression of the Liberal Democrats is a weak, ineffective minor partner in a Tory-dominated government. Admittedly, much of this is subjective. Also, the programme is ongoing and therefore can not be judged properly at such an early stage. The Guardian concludes that "certain areas are clearly dominated by the Liberal Democrats, notably civil liberties, while a number of other areas are a landslide for Conservative policy. Some areas, like foreign policy and defence, look to be completely Conservative, but it is likely that this is more due to omissions in the Liberal Democrat manifesto than contrasting ideas." Having examnined the data in more detail, it also seems the Lib Dems have contributed significantly (and disproportionately, given our status as a minor partner) to shaping government banking and business policy.

Amazingly, of the 399 policies in the agreement, 174 are originated from the Conservatives and 91 are from the Lib Dems. 80 were policies of both parties. Raw statistics don't tell the full story, of course, but this is a useful indicator of Lib Dem input. It is plainly folly to argue that the Lib Dems are lacking influence in shaping policy; actually, I imagine this will almost certainly anger those on the right of the Conservative Party who dislike the coalition and begrudge our party's role and involvement in government.

I know some Tories who are so livid that Clegg, Cable, Huhne, Alexander and Moore are in the cabinet that they've considered resigning their membership. They're appalled that Cameron was so generous during the coalition negotiations. Given this, I find it strange that the media has been so keen to repeat the unfounded, shallow arguments of the left rather than give any credence to the fears of the right that the Lib Dems might actually be doing far more in government than our numbers suggest we should. There are far more Tories concerned about "concessions", "compromises", a diluted programme for government and Cameron's closeness to senior Lib Dems than there are Lib Dem members critical of their own leadership, but this reality if repeatedly and conveniently ignored.

In fact, if anyone doubts the influence of the Liberal Democrats, I suggest they should attend the Conservative Party conference next week and ask seasoned activists their opinion of Nick Clegg - a far better guage of Lib Dem achievement than either crude statistics or the views of Labour supporters.

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