Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Labour's Chief Whip in the House of Lords
If the Lib Dems are the conscience of the Government it isn't evident from the behaviour of their Peers in the Lords. We now have two years experience of watching them in government. Nick Clegg claims that his Party makes a difference and achieves change to the ideological, right wing and out-of-touch policies of David Cameron and his Ministers; and that the Lords is where the Lib Dems are given a bit of slack to make amends.
In reality, the picture is very different. The concessions they achieve are often so transparently feeble that even the Lib Dems are embarrassed by them. This was clear during the Health Bill, where no real meaningful changes were made Lib Dem Peers, including Shirley Williams, to inhibit the marketisation of the NHS.
Indeed, at the final sign-off for the Bill, one of their senior Peers, Tony Greaves, rather gave the game away when he said: “It will lead to a greater emphasis on competition rather than integration, and to a continuing incursion of private sector-based companies into the provision of NHS services. It is undoubtedly a radical top-down restructuring, in direct contradiction of the Coalition Agreement that I signed up to”.
He knew a deal had been done to secure one of the worst pieces of legislation the Lib Dems will ever put their names too.
So, having failed on health, have Lib Dem peers lived up to the valuable and rebellious billing the Deputy Prime Minister characterises them with? Not really!
In the 236 votes of this over-long parliamentary session, the Lib Dems have contributed to a Government defeat just 7 times. Far more significant in the 49 Government defeats that have occurred during the session has been the role of the independent Crossbenchers and the strength of the Labour vote.
In fact the Lib Dem group in the Lords has a rather Stalinist discipline when it comes to supporting the Government. So much so that it often leads to LibDem Peers being given 'permission' to make a rebellious speech against the Government and yet voting with them at the same time. And a bizarre recent development is that they will table amendments against their own legislation, speak against the Government and then vote against the amendment they have moved.
Colleagues in the Commons tell us that this is now called ‘Simon Hughes syndrome’ because it is part of the Lib Dem Party Deputy Leader's armoury of political denial.
Why do they do it?
For a while we thought the reason they did it was simply part of the odd behaviour of Lib Dems generally. But we have now concluded it is part of a conscious strategy to allow them to say they were the only opposition to an unpopular Government policy, when their voting record shows plainly they were not. Yes, we know the Lib Dems trade on their inconsistency and try to sell this as part of their appeal. The trouble is this approach can't work in Government where people want to know what is trying to be achieved and that there is a sense of purpose and direction.
What we do see however, is a highly consistent pattern of Lib Dem support for policies they would previously have been ashamed to sign up to. For example, reducing legal aid for domestic violence victims and children, stopping welfare entitlement for cancer victims during their treatment, and backing the Tories in not releasing the Health Bill risk register, despite the a freedom of information tribunal ruling against Andrew Lansley.
These are a just a few recent examples of how Lib Dem Peers voted on key issues that have either made people in our country poorer, undermined services or attacked people’s rights.
What gets Labour members’ goat is the way that Lib Dems don't just share the pain but bear the brunt of the heavy lifting in the Coalition. They front up obnoxious proposals, argue them through and then even when one or two are let off the leash to speak their minds, 60 to 70 of them troop through the Government lobby – often, when many Tories have gone home reliant on their Pavlovian friends to deliver for them.
‘Rebellions’ by numbers
The turnout of Lib Dem Peers in the division lobbies since the election has been consistently higher than the Tory group in the Lords. With close votes it saves the Government, almost every time - critical in a session when we have had 24 votes where the majority has been fewer than 15.
Since May 2010, in raw numbers, the Tories have had 618 rebel votes and the Lib Dems 572. So, unsurprisingly then, 96 per cent of all Lib Dem votes cast in the Lords since May 2010 have been for the Coalition, That’s hardly a political group using their votes to change the Government’s course or acting as its conscience.
Sadly, the Lib Dems have lived up to my expectations. My two years of being Opposition Chief Whip have told me not to expect too much from them. They talk the talk okay, so much so that we decided to analyse how much they talk – and the upshot is they talk a lot. On the Health Bill for example, every fourth word was uttered by a Lib Dem. But they deliver very little.
My mother had a rather good expression for it. She would have said that they were “all mouth and no trousers”.
The dangerous thing is that all this does is feed a cynical attitude amongst the voters. They see yet another party promise much and deliver little. Worse perhaps in a party like the Lib Dems is the fact they then claim as they have many achievements most of which have come from the official opposition – the Labour Party.
But if there is one thing that cheers me it is the attitude of the voters. They know that they have been conned once by them and I think they are in an unforgiving mood. Clegg has lost his ‘I agree with Nick’ moment and the voters are seeing Labour as the only radical and credible voice.