Whatever happened to the likeable Libs?

Jeremy BeechamLord Jeremy Beecham is a frontbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords and a Councillor on Newcastle City Council

In one of the seemingly endless debates on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill a leading Lib Dem peer speaking to his own amendment referred to his Party as “a Party of reform”. Winding up for the Opposition, I reminded him that his party traditionally regarded itself as the Party of conscience and reform (the phrase used by David Steel to describe the Liberal/SDP Alliance at its 1982 Yarmouth Conference).

When I asked what had happened to conscience, I received no reply – not surprisingly, since on this, as on many other occasions, Lib Dem amendments were not put to the vote.

During the Third Reading of the Health Bill, Lib Dem peers went further. Not only did they decline to put one of their amendments to the vote, they actually voted against it when Labour divided the House.

Sadly, this supine conformity to the wishes of their Tory senior partners in the Coalition has characterised their actions, as opposed to some of their words, during the passage of three major Bills. Two of these, on Welfare Reform and Health and Social Care, have now reached the statute book, with ping-pong awaited on the Legal Aid Bill, which returns to the Commons with 11 amendments passed over the wishes and votes of the vast majority of Lib Dem Peers. 

Taken together, these Bills constitute a massive onslaught on three major pillars of the Welfare State, which the Liberal Lord Beveridge did much to shape. Yet, astonishingly, Lib Dems voted in many cases in greater proportions relative to their number, than the Tories.  Very few ever joined us in the lobby. It is inconceivable that had they been on the Opposition benches if measures of this kind had been introduced by a Tory government, or especially one is tempted to think, by a Labour government, the Lib Dems would not have opposed them.

It’s possible, just, to feel almost sorry for some Lib Dem Ministers and back-benchers, so evidently conflicted by the role imposed on them by their leaders. Take Shirley Williams, who woke up to the menace of the Health Bill months after John Healey led the charge against coalition policy, and after it was casually signed off by Nick Clegg. She needs to believe that the carefully crafted Government amendments have drawn the teeth of the underlying conception of Andrew Lansley’s Bill.  They haven’t.

Or, consider Lord Shipley, a thoroughly decent Lib Dem, far removed from the Orange Book tendency which has captured his party, who is said to have announced at a Lib Dem Spring Conference meeting that he welcomed the return of social welfare law into the scope of legal aid. At which point, a Lib Dem delegate, who had lobbied for the relevant amendment which had been carried, asked Lord Shipley why he had then voted against the amendment.

The Lib Dem dilemma springs from their fatal choice to sign up to the coalition, rather than retain their independence on the basis of confidence and supply. Retaining independence would have provided the Party with the option of allowing a Tory government, if they thought it right, to carry out its financial policy, but to reserve their capacity to oppose or amend measures, which run contrary to their professed social agenda. They have sold themselves too cheaply, and in so doing, have also sold out too many people whose lives and life chances will increasingly be damaged by the implementation of Tory ideological obsessions.

I remember hearing a powerful speech by Shirley Williams at a fringe meeting at a Labour Local Government Conference, a year before she left us for the SDP. She described the dangers for a political party in choosing to stand in the middle of the road.

Now it’s not even a question of standing in the middle of the road. No longer the party of Beveridge, the Lemming Democrats are heading for the cliff edge.

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