Time for the Lib Dems to rethink their place in the Coalition?

Time for the Lib Dems to rethink their place in the Coalition?

With Chris Huhne’s resignation, it is generally agreed that the Liberal Democrats have lost their strongest voice in Cabinet, and will be even less able to exert influence over government policies. His seat as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was barely cold before Conservative backbenchers were pressing for a reduction in subsidies for renewable energy.

Perhaps now would be a good time for backbench Lib Dem MPs and party members to reconsider whether they really want to be a part of this Coalition. Nobody ever joined the Liberal Democrats because they were power-hungry. Having been the third party in British politics for generations, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of people who joined did so because they sincerely believed in liberal values, and could embrace the rather altruistic, reasonable, enlightened vision of society the party represented.

Now that the novelty of being involved in government has worn off, do they wonder what they have done? By entering into a Coalition with the Conservatives they have enabled them to implement a very radical right-wing programme, one of the most radical parts of which was not even in their manifesto. (Remember ‘no top-down reorganisation of the NHS’?) Even the Coalition Agreement stated ‘We will stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care’. Two months later, like a rabbit out of a hat, Mr. Lansley produced NHS reforms which were breathtaking in their scale and ambition.

On the day of Mr. Huhne’s resignation, the Royal College of GPs called on the government to drop its plans for the NHS, which they said would, "cause irreparable damage to patient care and jeopardise the NHS".

The Conservatives can no longer credibly maintain that the medical professions support their Bill, so the Liberal Democrats would be entirely justified in withdrawing their support.

Similarly, the government’s programme of cuts, which are only just beginning to bite, are far more savage than they need to be. Just as George Bush wrongly used 9/11 to justify invading Iraq, so the Conservatives have used the financial crisis to justify slashing the state - something they wanted to do anyway.

The Welfare Reform Bill is causing widespread fear and anxiety amongst the most vulnerable people in society: we have yet to see its full impact, and the suffering it will inevitably cause. Do Liberal Democrats really want to be part of a government which stands accused of fuelling prejudice against sick and disabled people? Surely this goes against everything their party has ever stood for.

In future years, if the government gets its legislation through, the welfare state and the NHS may be shadows of their former selves, and the Liberal Democrats may be almost wiped out as a political force. Will they feel proud of their relatively brief time in government?

If Lib Dems want to be able to look back with pride and a clear conscience, they should now withdraw their support for the Conservatives’ destructive programme. The worst that can happen is an early General Election, in which Lib Dems might claim to be the saviours - at least in part - of the NHS and the Welfare State.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

Keywords: chris huhne | coalition | nhs
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