We Lib Dems cannot return to 'business as usual'

Liberal Democrat life peer Trevor Smith sets out the implications of 5 May for his party. He argues that, while Nick Clegg will not resign as a result of crushing electoral results nationwide, they cannot return to 'business as usual'. The Lilb Dems must formulate a set of objectives, to restore public faith in the party
Trevor Smith
9 May 2011

I take it as axiomatic that Nick Clegg will not resign as Tavish Scott, the LD Scottish Leader, Iain Grey, the Scottish Labour Leader, or Michael Ignatieff, the  Canadian Liberal Leader have done following crushing electoral defeats. I also accept that the Coalition will endure.

What cannot be accepted is that it will be 'business as usual'. Clegg should indicate a clean sweep; for a start he should sack his entire cohort of Special Advisers not only as a symbol of this but also because they singularly failed to perform satisfactorily long before last week. The LDs must now negotiate with the Tories exploiting their new position of strength through weakness. It is far too soon to be fixing up a new Coalition 2.0 Agreement; the Letwin/Laws talks should be put on hold until the LDs have thought through radically what they need to do in the changed circumstances they now find themselves in.
Above all, they must seek to restore public trust. It was the tuition fees U-turn that sundered trust with its voters after the Election. They need to decide on a very limited range of priorities along the following lines.

First, they should develop an even stronger defence of the NHS in the light of the Lansley proposals as the recent LD party Spring Conference overwhelmingly endorsed.

Second, they should insist on a much stronger set of reforms of the banks and financial services in the Vickers Commission's final report.. Its lukewarm interim proposals do not begin to tackle the problem as the Social Liberal Forum’s emergency motion to the Spring conference spelt out and as most financial commentators have agreed.

Third, LDs should require a Robbins-style comprehensive review of UK third- level education. The Browne recommendation of a massive hike in tuition fees has had and will continue to have very deleterious effects: it will reduce participation rates and lead to a plethora of poor quality degrees provided by (often foreign) private firms. "Two Brains Willetts", the minister who has operationalised Browne, should be down-graded by the ratings agencies to half-brained - or "HalfWitt" for short.

Fourth, LDs must demand a timetable for the withdrawal from military operations in Afghanistan and Libya. There should be a firm undertaking of no more such adventures without the full agreement and proportionate contributions in troops and finance from our NATO partners. The UK cannot continue to send over-stretched and under-equipped troops to such theatres at a cost it cannot afford.

If these were formulated as specific LD objectives now they would emphasise the distinctive policies LDs bring to the 2.0 phase of the Coalition and on which their performance can be judged. These policy commitments would have to be of a 'solemn and binding nature' and acknowledged as such by the LD Leadership. They would go some way to restoring public faith.

Of course, dealing with the economic crisis remains the Coalition's topmost priority, though present policies may well have to be adapted or more drastically changed in the light of changing conditions. Furthermore, House of Lords reform should proceed but not be given the priority it had previously. The public mood, as shown by its rejection of AV, is not now accepting of constitutional reform as it was in the 1980s and '90s. If Cameron really wants to carry on with it, as his manifesto stated, support him but let him be the lead agent. Right now it no longer has the policy urgency it had for the LDs prior to last Thursday. LDs need to learn this lesson. Lords reform can't be used to compensate for the AV referendum failure.

Trevor Smith is a Lib Dem life peer. A former university Vice-Chancellor, he voted against his party whip over the tuition fees policy in the Lords. 

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