Sunday, March 04, 2012

The real issue which the Lib Dem spring conference needs to address

Back in the bad old days of two-party politics, the Liberal Democrat spring conference was one of those recurring events in the political calendar which even political journalists struggled to get too worked up about.

Sure, the BBC invariably ran a short item about it – but that was only because its rules on impartiality oblige it to give Lib Dem gatherings the same coverage as those of the other two main parties.

How times have changed, however. Not only is this year’s spring conference in Gateshead a big story in the North-East, but it is also set to attract the kind of national media attention which the third party could once only dream of.

At stake could be the future of a flagship piece of government legislation – and in the longer-term, the future of the government itself.

Last year’s spring conference saw Lib Dem activists effectively force their Tory coalition partners to order a ‘pause’ in the controversial Health and Social Care Bill designed to hand large parts of the NHS over to GP consortia and increase competition across the service.

A year on, and this year’s may yet result in the hated Bill’s final demise.

Alongside Europe, the Bill remains perhaps the biggest point of division between the two Coalition partners, despite continuing attempts by both party leaderships to soften it at the edges in the hope of avoiding a showdown.

But even a desperate entreaty by party leader Nick Clegg and much-loved veteran Baroness Williams this week looks unlikely to head-off an attempt at next week’s gathering to kill of the legislation once and for all.

Unlike on Europe, it has been clear for some time that the Lib Dem tail is wagging the Tory dog when it comes to the NHS.

Earlier this week, Lib Dem peers put forward a fresh series of amendments to the Bill in the House of Lords designed to further water down the requirements for increased competition.

Initially, the government said it was ‘not minded’ to accept the amendments, but once they were duly passed, it decided not to try to overturn them.

At the same time, Mr Clegg and Lady Williams issued a letter to party members saying that the Bill as now amended contained all the necessary safeguards and should therefore now be “allowed to proceed.”

Early signs are, however, that activists are determined to press ahead with a conference vote on the motion, which calls for the "deeply flawed" Bill to be "withdrawn or defeated.”

One prominent Lib Dem, Graham Winyard, has already resigned from the party over the issue, warning Mr Clegg that his support for the bill would be "a slow-motion disaster" for the NHS and the party.

Labour has not been slow to seize on the divisions, with shadow health secretary Andy Burnham attacking Mr Clegg’s “stage managed posturing” over the Bill.

He urged Lib Dem rebels to work with Labour and dismantle the Bill to remove the provisions relating to competition.

But of course the Lib Dems’ problems go much wider than health. Their real difficulty lies in the fact that voters have deserted the party in droves since it joined the Coalition.

In this sense, it is ironic that they are meeting in the North-East at a time when the party’s standing in the region has possibly never been lower.

A poll carried out by YouGov the week before last showed the party now has the support of just 4pc of the region’s voters – lower than the UK Independence Party on 7pc.

The days when the Lib Dems entertained serious hopes of winning parliamentary seats such as Blaydon and Durham City now seem a very long way away indeed.

Under Charles Kennedy’s leadership from 1999-2006, the party pursued a successful strategy of appealing to disaffected Labour voters as well as its own traditional supporters, gaining its higher number of MPs since the 1920s.

It is now facing the nightmare scenario of its parliamentary representation being reduced to single figures for the first time since the revival of third-party politics began in the 1970s.

It is hard to dispute the analysis of Gateshead councillor Ron Beadle that, in electoral terms, the Coalition has been a “disaster” for the party.

This, not the future of the health bill, is the real issue which this spring conference needs to address.

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