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Thursday, March 31, 2011

This is what the Liberal Democrats are for

Fascinating article by Steve Richards in this morning's Independent in which he argues that the progressive alliance that is gathering around a yes vote in the forthcoming AV referendum underlines why Nick Clegg was right to go into coalition with the Conservatives last year:

In the immediate aftermath of the election Gordon Brown urged Clegg to form a coalition with Labour on the basis that the two of them could deliver electoral reform. The campaign shows that neither Brown, nor any Labour leader, could have united his party around support for a change in the voting system. He could have delivered a referendum, but no powerful united campaign in support of AV.

Most Labour MPs and party members are opposed. No doubt if Clegg had formed a partnership with Labour, more of its MPs would be supportive of change. Part of the reason for the scale of the opposition is Clegg's love-in with the Conservatives, or to put it more accurately, Clegg's hostility to Labour. But even without that factor many Labour MPs feel passionately opposed to AV and would have kept to that position under any circumstances.

Of course Clegg is in a coalition with a party almost wholly opposed to electoral reform, but he secured the referendum and the chance to dance in a partnership commanding a majority in the Commons.

More interestingly, he claims that the influence of the Liberal Democrats on the Coalition is growing, and exceeds what they might have expected on the basis of their relatively small number of seat:

They are, in theory, the rather pathetic, junior partners in a coalition of the radical right. Yet in reality they are important and substantial partners, at times almost co-equals.

By this I do not mean merely that they provide cover for a leap to the right, although that is, to some extent, a consequence of their presence. Their policy contribution is distinctive and significant. Beyond the referendum on electoral reform, Clegg can credibly claim that in several areas his party has helped to make the Coalition more progressive and less reactionary than it might have been.

Mr. Richards refers to an article by former adviser to Gordon Brown, Gavin Kelly in this week's New Statesman, in which he highlights and chronicles in considerable detail the influence of the Lib Dems on tax policy. In particular, Nick Clegg's aim of excluding those on low incomes from income tax is getting closer to realisation, not least with the recent Budget: Kelly argues that there are many anomalies that arise from this policy, but recognises its significance. Here is a tax cut that is clear, comprehensible and fair in the sense that no one is going to enter an election arguing that those on low income should pay more tax.

And even on top-up fees, universities can only charge the maximum if their admission procedures favour those from poorer backgrounds, because of the Liberal Democrat insistence on promoting social mobility. Without the Liberal Democrats it is likely that a group of extreme eurosceptic backbenchers would have held Cameron to ransom, whilst the cuts to the BBC's funding would have been much greater if it had not been for the intervention of the Coalition's junior partners.

Even the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance has been mitigated by pressure from the Liberal Democrats, as Michael Gove openly acknowledged when announcing a little more investment for his alternative. As Mr. Richards concludes, in limited but important ways, the Lib Dems have been a benevolent force and, equally important, Cameron gives them the space to be benevolent.
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