Well, I feel kind of hung over emotionally today.
It was deeply unpleasant for me to watch the Welfare Reform Bill clear the Commons yesterday, especially as the Government had decided to re-classify it as a financial bill so that the Lords couldn’t interfere with it any more.
It was more in sadness than anger that I watched our MPs defy the clear will of the party set out at Conference in September, and vote for a one year time limit for contributory Employment and Support Allowance. These are good people and I can’t imagine that they would have enthusiastically trooped through the Aye lobby. But I’m not here to set out the case for their defence. That has to be up to them.
Of the 11 Liberal Democrat MPs in Scotland, 5 either didn’t vote or voted against at some point. Mike Moore is still laid up with Chicken Pox and Charles Kennedy isn’t recorded as voting at all. I want to give big hugs to Alan Reid, Mike Crockart and Ming Campbell who all defied the whip at one stage or another.
This is not the first time that our Parliamentarians have voted against party policy, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last. I’d argue that it was the worst, though. I feel that this is worse than tuition fees. Ultimately, our intervention reduced payments for the lowest paid by a lot and the people affected by the tuition fees decision had better life chances anyway. The good bits of the Welfare Reform Bill, along with things like the Pupil Premium and other measures designed to boost social mobility, will vastly improve the life chances of people who had just been left, potential unfulfilled, on benefits indefinitely. The price we shouldn’t have to pay for that is taking benefits away from sick and disabled people who rely on them to live. Not live a life of luxury, just to live. That money is there to give some quality to their lives, to help them afford the trips to hospital, the extra heating, the special food or equipment that they need. Not want. Need.
I am particularly annoyed that our people have simply not communicated with us. They have not sought to defend the measures that they have voted for, nor their decision to support them. I simply don’t think that’s good enough. Radio silence doesn’t help us on the doorsteps when people say to us that their mother will be forced into poverty because she’s losing her ESA, for example. Or that they’ll have to move out of the house they’ve lived in for 30 years because they have one bedroom too many and have fallen on tougher times.
I have absolutely no doubt that our MPs’ and ministers’ intervention have made this bill a good bit less awful than it otherwise might have been – and we have to remember that if it hadn’t been for us, Osborne would not have uprated benefits by 5.2% in the Autumn Statement – but we need to know more about their reasoning behind the decisions they made.
I had some really thoughtful, personal replies from MPs who took differing decisions last night but we need to be hearing a little more from them, pitched in a tone that resonates amongst Liberal Democrats.
The essentially mild mannered epistle I sent them all earlier in the week will, I suspect, be nothing compared to the warmth they will feel under their bottoms at the next meeting of the Federal Policy Committee from the likes of Gareth Epps and Linda Jack. Or at least I hope that’s the case. And if you feel the same as I do and you happen to see one, don’t just mumble and look at the floor, tell them how their support of the Welfare Reform Bill has disappointed you.
I knew when the Coalition was formed that there would be moments when I’d have to be locked in a cupboard with a bottle of gin to get through certain Commons votes. In the event, it was merlot, but I suspect the hangover from this will last a bit longer.
I hope that there won’t be a backlash in terms of membership for the party. In the last quarter, we’d started to turn the corner, with people joining up again. We really don’t need people cancelling their direct debits again. We can ill afford to lose people on the social liberal side of the party – and that’s where organisations like the Social Liberal Forum can play a major role in retaining those members and giving them a voice.
Leaders have traditionally done their best to ignore decisions of our conference that they don’t like. Anyone who was around in 1994 will remember Paddy Ashdown stalking off after a debate on decriminalising cannabis. Not, as he said at last year’s Guardian fringe at the Birmingham Conference,because he disagreed with the policy, but that he felt it was the wrong time to be talking about it.
There are limits, though, and them in the Westminster Bubble need to realise that they need to take the party with them. Labour MPs had the unions to bail them out when their activists no longer felt motivated to help them post Iraq, but we have no such luxuries. We lived through an ever increasing disconnect between our MSPs in Government and the party’s grassroots over the first 8 years of the Holyrood Parliament. This was not a healthy thing – and it continued during the last administration with the Parliamentary Party taking lines that many members were very uncomfortable with, such as over Megrahi and minimum alcohol pricing. Things are changing now, as we have a leader who spends a lot of time eliciting and taking on board the views of the membership and enjoying spending time with the grassroots all over the country.
When the Coalition was formed, I had a few words of friendly advice for our MPs and Ministers about the importance for them as well as us, of keeping good relations and communications with the party.
The biggest and best piece of advice I could give to any of our new government people is keep talking to the party. Tell us what’s happening, what the challenges are and let us support you. If you just go off and do stuff that seems a bit weird to the party without explanation, we are going to feel ignored and left out and will get grumpy. That will make you want to talk to us even less and the whole thing will descend into a cycle of grumpiness and suspicion that really isn’t pleasant for anyone.
I’ve seen it happen before when, for example, a Lib Dem Council group is formed for the first time, or a Council administration. Sometimes the people who are holding the office at whatever level can really feel that their loyalties are torn. A friend of mine and I were talking yesterday and he called it almost like Stockholm Syndrome. Our ministers will be spending most of their time within the corridors of power and may feel that their first loyalty is to the Government rather than the party. In fact, there may be times on both sides of the coalition when the company of people outside their party is preferable. I think that this sort of thing is inevitable but both the ministers and the party need to be aware of it and do the old working at our relationship sort of thing. We in the party need to listen to the ministers and understand the pressures on them too. Just take it from experience that a bit of time cuddling up to the party will pay dividends in the long term and cause much less hassle.
Our party is not one that just blindly obeys its leaders. That will never change and nor should it. Part of being a liberal is understanding and relishing in diversity and debate. That’s not always easy for leaders to deal with and it won’t always be possible for them to find the energy to inspire. The party and the ministers will need to have a bit of give and take on both sides. I was glad to see that there has been proper thought to how to maintain the relationships within the coalition – similar thoght needs to be given in how to ensure that relationships between the ministers and the party stay as cordial and mutually supportive as possible.
Our MPs need to make sure that they are keeping a close eye on the effects of this law as it’s implemented. If it’s causing the hardship that’s predicted, they need to find ways of mitigating those effects, if necessary, admitting that they’ve got it wrong and changing things.
Last night was, for me, the very worst moment of this Government so far. We have a good record on standing up for the poorest paid and pensioners in this Government, but we have let down the sick. I think we’re definitely bringing good things to this Coalition. Look at how Steve Webb delivers the biggest ever cash increase in the State Pension while his Tory mates down the hall come up with plans to slash disability benefits. As far as the provisions of the bill that related to the bed tax, child maintenance and the Employment and Support Allowance go though, I can only be proud of those Liberal Democrats who voted against.