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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Supervisor

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a well establis...

Recruitment Genius: IT Technical Support Engineer / Helpdesk Engineer

£16500 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued growth an exce...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A full-service agency based in ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £21,000

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to company expansion a fant...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Budget 2015: George Osborne should earn his reputation for courage by abolishing free TV licences for the over 75s

Christopher Bland
The possibility of Corbyn winning has excited some Conservatives  

Labour leadership: The choice at the heart of the leadership campaign

Jeremy Corbyn
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy