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Saturday, July 10, 2010

'The most liberal parliament in a generation'

Like many other Liberal Democrat politicians I have been the subject of what Nick Clegg describes as 'the collective bile' of the Labour opposition. Their strategy appears to be to try and destabilise the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition by playing on the unease felt by some activists at the difficult decisions we have had to make in government to get the economy back on track after Labour's failure left the country in the lurch.

Labour apologists argue that it was an international crisis and that it was all the banks' fault, but that ignores the fact that the recession did not hit every country in the same way, that our indebtedness, despite early Liberal Democrat warnings, and Labour's failure to properly regulate the banks, left Britain vulnerable to the disaster that befell us. It is a fact that Labour's legacy is a £22,400 debt for every man, woman and child in Britain. That has to be tackled.

As an activist myself, as well as a full-time politician and as somebody who has been in government, I understand that we have to take the rough with the smooth. We need to make decisions that we might not like for the best interests of the country and of course the one thing you quickly discover once you are in government is that you cannot do everything you wanted or go as far as you would wish for the same reasons.

The other point that all Liberal Democrats need to bear in mind is that we are in a coalition, something we are used to in Wales. We do not have the 326 seats we need to push through everything we promised in our manifesto. We have to compromise. That is the nature of coalitions. Our programme for government is what is in the coalition agreement, not what is in our manifesto and that is what we should be judged on.

This does not stop our opponents playing games of course. But when they ask me why I am still there, in the thick of it, supporting Nick Clegg, I can find no better answer than his interview in this morning's Guardian where he outlines why this is the most liberal parliament in a generation.

Nick spells out why we did what we had to on the economy:

Clegg won unanimous support to share power with the Tories even though the Lib Dems gave ground on the defining issue of this parliament in the coalition agreement. Clegg and Vince Cable, who had warned that early action to tackle the fiscal deficit could choke off the recovery, signed up to a faster and deeper programme of cuts.

The deputy prime minister dismisses the likes of Ed Balls who say the Lib Dems are risking a return to a 1930s downturn by endorsing Tory cuts.

Senior officials, led by the Bank of England governor, Mervyn King, were clear that unless an early statement of intent was issued, the markets would target the pound. "If we didn't assert control very quickly you would have something immeasurably worse than what we are doing now," Clegg said. "Instead of a government that was accountable to the people taking difficult decisions, you'd have even more unpleasant decisions taken by people who are not accountable at all."

But he also explains why the experience of government under these circumstances is worth it for our party:

To critics on the left, who say he has sold out his liberal principles, he says this will be the most liberal parliament in a generation. "You now have a government in a very short few weeks announce a programme for reform we have not seen in a decade or the early years of New Labour enthusiasm for reform.

"We have got a very dramatic push for rebalancing of the statute book away from state authority towards individual liberty. It has been talked about for years and now we are going to get on with it.Arguably, in my view, this is the most liberal parliament we have had in a generation or two, rebalancing the relationship between the state and the individual, defending not trashing civil liberties, political reform, internationalist in outlook, dedicated to greater green sustainability. There are really big signals."

This is real influence. It is what many of us have worked for all our political lives. More importantly, despite the barrage of criticism and childish gesture politics from Labour and their fellow travellers, it is political courage and relevance that is recognised by the voters.

Polls are fickle and unreliable indicators of support and best ignored even when we are doing well. That is a lesson we can take out of the General Election. But in terms of Liberal Democrat membership it is a fact that for every person who has left us, ten have joined.

It may not last of course. Government tends to have a corrosive effect on party membership and organisation, but I and others hope that at the end of this process we will be able to say not only that it was worth it, but that also we have changed Britain for good.
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