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The Lib Dems irrelevant? Far from it

March 31, 2011 11:00 AM
By Steve Richards in The Independent

In important ways, the Tories' partners have been a benevolent force - and Cameron has given them space to exercise influence

It is tempting to view this week's launch of the "Yes to AV" campaign as the progressive alliance that might have been - and the one that might yet be formed in the near future. There was Ed Miliband, Charles Kennedy, Shirley Williams, Caroline Lucas and others on the same platform - getting on well, all of them relaxed and good-humoured. The absence of Nick Clegg added to a sense that without him this was the natural coming together that should have happened after the election, and must happen soon.

The temptation might be great, but is also close to fantasy. The lessons of the AV campaign, and what is happening in the Coalition, are more complex and subtle. They do not exclude the possibility of such alliances forming in the future. The left-of-centre pressure group Compass is already facilitating partnerships between non-Tory politicians from different parties. But the immediate lessons highlight the challenges of forming a new centre-left arrangement, and - oddly - vindicate Clegg's decision to turn away from Labour last May.

How can it be that an AV campaign bringing together a Labour leader and the Lib Dems can bring about such vindication? The answer is simple. 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.

The nature of that dance is subtler than orthodoxy allows. If anything 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 seats. 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.

I make the observation not on the basis of any conversations with "friends of Nick Clegg" who are desperate to avoid meltdown in the local elections and to claim progressive distinction. I have not had such conversations of late. I do so by looking at what is happening in policy terms within the Government. Policies are the most accurate guide - much more so than private conversations with friends of anyone.

A former adviser to Gordon Brown, Gavin Kelly, has written an important article for this week's New Statesman in which he highlights and chronicles in considerable detail the influence of the Lib Dems on tax policy. Kelly notes how 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.

On top-up fees for universities - Clegg's potentially fatal policy in terms of trust and practical application - there is a potentially significant twist. As David Cameron stressed again at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, universities can only charge maximum fees if their admission procedures favour those from poorer backgrounds. On this Clegg is determined - partly because it might save him politically, but also because in relation to social mobility, and indeed redistribution through taxation, he is not the Thatcherite of fashionable caricature.

Sections of his party have more recognisably social democratic tendencies, but play their part too in the direction of the Coalition. The Lib Dems' opposition to the NHS reforms at their recent Sheffield conference meant that changes were unavoidable, even though Clegg had been too supportive of the original proposals. A partner in a coalition, even a junior one, could not embark on such upheaval in the NHS when it opposes the policy. The policy therefore has to change.

In each case the practical impact of the Lib Dems might be weak. Regulation of universities has been hopeless in the past and I will be surprised if the admission code is robustly applied when most Conservative MPs are wary. The NHS reforms have the capacity to unleash destructive chaos unless the changes are deep rather than cosmetic. More widely, Clegg has yet to explain why an economic approach he broadly supported before the election has become Labour's calamity now. But even so, the Lib Dems' very existence in the Coalition changes the dynamic in ways that should not be underestimated.

A mildly pro-European Tory MP told me recently that without the Lib Dems a group of extreme eurosceptic backbenchers would have held Cameron to ransom. In a coalition with a pro-European party Cameron has no choice but not be held to ransom.

On another issue, senior figures at the BBC tell me that the cut to their funding would have been much greater than the existing fairly tough settlement if it were not for the intervention of Lib Dems. Elsewhere, the misguided scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance has been mitigated by pressure from Clegg's party, as Michael Gove openly acknowledged when announcing a little more investment for his alternative. In limited but important ways, the Lib Dems have been a benevolent force and, equally important, Cameron gives them the space to be benevolent.

Shirley Williams and Charles Kennedy have more in common politically with Ed Miliband than they do with Cameron/Osborne. But they still have some cause beyond expediency to cling by their fingernails to the fast-moving Coalition. They will still be clinging if there is a No vote in May.