Leading article: The growing pains of the Liberal Democrats

Mr Clegg must prove his MPs are not simply lobby-fodder for their Tory Coalition partners

Share
Related Topics

With the Liberal Democrats in Gateshead for their spring conference this weekend, NHS reform is once again top of the agenda. And once again grassroots activists are threatening rebellion. It would be a mistake – for the NHS and also for the party. It is time to make peace and move on.

Last year's conference was a seminal moment for the Health and Social Care Bill. Outspoken Liberal Democrat opposition, led by Baroness Williams, forced the Government to rethink key parts of the package. Despite another 140-odd modifications since, however, swathes of the party are still unhappy. Even Nick Clegg's carefully choreographed recent amendments – introduced with the backing of Lady Williams, no less – have not proved conclusive. And although a final decision will not be made until tonight, in all likelihood delegates will debate at least one of two emergency motions on the subject tomorrow morning.

It is a testing moment for the Liberal Democrats. For all the upbeat talk from Mr Clegg – with his call for the party to "tear off that rear-view mirror" and "get on with the job" – he has real concerns that party members could vote to veto the legislation altogether, and real problems if they do. Yesterday's tribunal ruling that the Government must publish their officials' gloves-off risk assessment of the reforms will only be grist to the mill of its opponents. Even so, it would be reckless for the Liberal Democrats to withdraw their support now.

It is true that there is much to be criticised. Bundling so much into a single behemoth of a Bill just as health service budgets face a £20bn squeeze was grossly ill-judged. But the central tenets – to cut bureaucracy and boost competition – remain the right ones and should be pursued.

The Liberal Democrats would also pay a high political price for a volte-face. After months spent amending the Bill, to vote it down now, with barely more than a week to go, would smack of political immaturity, if not outright disingenuousness. Better to claim credit for improving the original plans and let the legislation pass.

That said, the contretemps makes it more important than ever to set out a convincingly Liberal Democrat agenda. The NHS reforms may not have sparked quite the same outrage as the undeniable U-turn over tuition fees, but they have proved dangerously divisive among the party's traditional supporters. Mr Clegg's primary task now must be to heal the breach, proving both to voters and activists alike that he and his colleagues in Westminster are more than just lobby-fodder for their Conservative Coalition partners.

Arguably, the NHS reforms are a case in point. Without the brouhaha from the Liberal Democrats, the Bill would have been passed, unamended, a year ago. But, despite the best efforts of the likes of party president Tim Farron, the message has been lost in the noise.

As the Budget approaches, the Liberal Democrats have another, more tangible, opportunity to make their presence count: tax. With the Chancellor casting around for ways to boost growth, what better than to trade an agreement to abolish the 50p top rate for expedited plans to raise the income tax threshold? And, to pay for the scheme, there are two other Liberal Democrat favourites – a mansion tax and reduced top-rate pension relief.

It is never easy to prove the counter-intuitive, to demonstrate with certainty that a situation would otherwise be worse. That was always going to be the challenge for the Liberal Democrats in coalition. Tax is an opportunity to prove their progressive worth. Voting down the NHS reforms is not.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore