Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Breaking or Making of Parties...

It's no fun seeing the party you have supported and of which you have been a member for over thirty years seemingly tearing itself apart though I well remember the merger period of 1987-88 as a blacker time. Tonight, the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party tore itself in three with roughly half backing the Government move to raise tuition fees to £9k, eight abstaining and twenty-one voting against the Government.

The measure carried by a majority of 21 (323-302).

For Nick Clegg, it is time to rebuild and reflect on what has been a bruising fortnight but which ultimately may prove to have more significance than many believe. Politicians, like the rest of us, are occasionally tested in the fire and it can either make or break them. Nick Clegg seems to have some of the same steel for which his home city of Sheffield is well known.

David Cameron will also have been embarrassed by six of his MPs joining the revolt but it is the Lib Dems who have taken the flak for this proposal which, while unpopular with some students, is perhaps less unpopular with students than generally realised.

It's been a fortnight of almost unremitting hostility for Clegg, especially from the Labour side, and the decision of a significant minority to vote against the proposal doesn't help. The Coalition Agreement, which superceded every other document INCLUDING the Election Manifesto in terms of a policy programme, allowed for an abstention and that's fine so 36 MPs supported the Agreement as it stood.

In some ways, this whole experience could be hugely beneficial for the party in the medium to long term. First, it shows the dangers and futility of comfortable irresponsible Opposition where you can advocate anything and agree to sign any pledge safe in the knowledge you won't be accountable for it. The Liberal Democrats fell into that not insignificant trap on this issue and have paid a heavy price but if it means that future policy-making is established on a more realistic stance, that can only be for the good of the party.

In addition, the Party is being tested in the fires of unpopularity in Government. It must learn and gain strength from the experience in the knowledge that credibility comes from these experiences. The other point is that it's clear there is no relationship with Labour at the moment though that may change over time and especially if economic growth revitalises the Coalition and its political prospects.

Every day the Party spends in Government is valuable experience and though in popularity the party is well down there is a huge potential reservoir of supporters among those who have previously voted mainly Conservative. I believe a significant part of this vote is far more anti-Labour than pro-Conservative and the argument the Conservatives have used in every election at recent times (a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour) has been destroyed. There's a big vote for grabs if Nick Clegg has the courage to go for it.

For now, though, it's about riding out the storm and holding the Party together. That son't be easy but if I've learned nothing else in politics, hanging together is infinitely better than hanging separately.

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