Let's end the shouting and start the debate

1997 is the year for the Liberal Democrats to seize the initiative, argues Alan Beith
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Liberal Democrats in Parliament have been looking forward to the period after the general election, when we expect to have even more MPs than our present post-war record of 26. But we now have an opportunity to exercise influence and really make the difference, before the election. The fact that the Government has lost its majority, and the collapse of the pairing system, have given us a powerful opportunity. I intend that we should take it.

The public is sick of the shouting match that passes for Parliament on TV. They are sick of the sleaze and the arrogance which they see in current politics. Although they want change, they are not impressed by Labour politicians pretending that they can transform the country without spending any money. They want to know what parties stand for.

So, we must use the remaining months of this dying parliament to get our views across. First, we will use the debates and votes on the Finance Bill to set our priority for investment in education, and we will call on other politicians to stand up and be counted. If they say they back education, then they must vote for the resources it needs.

Secondly, we will use our votes to stop the Government from pushing through illiberal measures which Labour, in its desperation not to lose again, will not dare to oppose. We will continue to insist on parliamentary debate on civil liberty issues over which Labour are too ready to let the Government have an easy ride. We will oppose government plans which could require every working citizen to produce a certificate showing whether they have ever had a criminal conviction. We will oppose the ludicrously expensive plan to divert billions of pounds into prison buildings, when the money is needed to prevent crimes from being carried out in the first place. We will not be satisfied with leaving chief constables to authorise bugging activity by members of their own police forces. The Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords have already demonstrated that we are an effective opposition on many such issues.

Thirdly, we will stand, virtually alone, for a national and progressive approach to Britain's role in Europe. We have already got a Liberal Democrat resolution passed by the House of Commons demanding a referendum on constitutional change in Europe: we will press that demand, and we will put the neglected case for stronger British participation in a more democratic Europe.

Above all, we will fight to protect the democratic process itself. Increasingly it is left to Liberal Democrats to block this government's attempts to push laws through Parliament without proper scrutiny, just as it is Liberal Democrats who challenge Labour's abuse of power on many of the local councils they control.

We shall be asking a lot from our MPs and candidates in the coming weeks. MPs in particular will need to combine campaigning in the constituencies with intense activity in Parliament. There will be some fierce debate - we are not prepared to play a game of insults, but we will stand our ground on issues which we believe matter to the people of this country. The other parties try to exclude us from debate. Our leader is allowed only one question a week to the Prime Minister, compared to Tony Blair's six, so we need to use other parliamentary procedures to make our case known: parliamentary guerrilla tactics may be needed. If the Government tries to win votes by trickery, it must expect a reaction from a party which cares about Parliament.

In the coming weeks, the Conservatives and Labour parties will insult each other endlessly, but will get closer and closer together on policy issues. Indeed, Labour's political stance is largely decided by what the Conservatives do.

Liberal Democrats are different. We have consistent policies on education, taxation, the economy, Europe, crime, electoral reform and civil liberty. In the dying days of this parliament, we must make that distinctive position clearly known. 1997 is our year of opportunity.

The writer is MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed and Deputy Leader and Chairman of the Liberal Democrats.

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