Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Blast from the past: Paddy Ashdown's lesson in principled opposition

As I've watched the shameful shenanigans in the House of Commons this week over Lords reform, one event from our recent past kept popping into my head. Those of us of a certain age can remember the eventful passage of the Maastricht Bill through Parliament in 1992/93.  Even though they agreed with the principles of the Maastricht Treaty, Labour teamed up with Tory Eurosceptics to try to undermine the Government.

The Liberal Democrats, enthusiastic about closer European partnership, played no such games. I would be lying if I said I had taken this entirely calmly at the time. After 14 years of Tory rule, I, like many, was so fed up of them that it took me a while to understand why we hadn't got rid of them when we had the chance.

Paddy Ashdown wrote about this in his autobiography, A Fortunate Life:
Both these events (Black Wednesday and the devaluation of the pound) terribly weakened Major's Government and presented the opposition parties with a most tempting opportunity to vote with Major's Euro-rebels and  defeat him in the Commons. But if we did this we would destroy Britain's future in Europe at the same time. After much debate and some arm twisting, especially with Charles Kennedy who wa very uncertain on the issue, (I wheeled out Roy Jenkins to help out here), the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party finally agreed we would stand by our European principles and support the Government. Labour, on the other hand, though in favour of the Bill in principle, said they would join the Tories' Euro-rebels in order to damage Major and perhaps even, as they saw it, bring his Government down.
When it comes to deciding what you should and should not do in Opposition, I have always believed in the policy of George Lansbury, Labour's forgotten leader before the Second World War, who said it was usually wisest for opposition parties to reject th temptations of easy opportunism and act as they would do in Government. For that is the best way to show the electorate that they can be trusted with power.
Paddy went on to say that this was the vote of which he was most proud during his time in the Commons. Despite some disquiet and resignations from the Party, he says that sticking to our principles did us very little harm in the end "and may even have done some good."

We have a situation where Labour, who say they believe in Lords reform, although they did precious little about it during the 13 years they were in power, were prepared to vote against a structured timetable to get the legislation through, without actually defining how many extra days of scrutiny they would like. At the same time they voted for the Second Reading of the Bill. How is that even logical?

Labour tweeter Aidan Skinner told me on Twitter last night that:

So, if that's the case, you have to wonder what else Labour will vote against that they should believe in. Will they try to scupper ,  measures to restrict executive pay, banking reform, libel reform, the children and families bill which gives parents more choice in childcare and parental leave?  Will they vote down the Grocery Adjudicator who will make sure the supermarkets play fair with their suppliers?

Politics could be about to get very messy. Labour and the Conservatives both want to show that Coalition can't work, that parties can't really work together. It will be the challenge for the Liberal Democrats to persuade the public that they can and should. Maybe our party will shine as the only responsible adults left in the House of Commons, and, maybe, Ed Miliband will realise that burning all bridges might not be the wisest thing to do. He may need us one day.

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