Breaking the Establishment

This post originally appeared on Lib Dem Voice.

“We stand up for the outsider instead of the establishment.”, Tim Farron said during the leadership rally last week. For party members who were rather discouraged by our missteps in coalition, that line gives us hope.

Our failings in the Coalition can be traced to one key fault: after speaking out against the establishment, we were seen to be now a part of it. There are so many bills that we extracted key concessions on, but we were not able to communicate that. How could we, after all? We were bound by Cabinet collective responsibility. But it was never designed to operate the way it did in coalition.

Cast your minds back five years to Vince’s infamous statement on tuition fees. Imagine a different statement, in which he said “Our right honourable colleagues, and the honourable Opposition, have argued that the review should be adopted in full. My right honourable friends and I obviously take a different approach. We will consult with stakeholders and publish a bill in due course.” Immediately, everyone would have been seen us as fighting our corner. And even if the fee level stayed the same, we would have seen to have fought honourably and lost instead of being seen to not fight at all.

Why is this important now? Because of the absolute cowardice of Labour on Monday to oppose the Welfare Bill that Clegg and Alexander had kept off the floor of the House for five years and warned about during the election campaign. 148 Labour MPs sat on their hands and did nothing. The government’s majority on the bill was 148.

Of course, we should not be under any illusion that the bill could have been defeated on Monday. If Labour came out against it, then the result would have been something like 315-308. Indeed, there were reports that some Labour MPs were paired off. But the Tories refused to pair when it came to bringing down Callaghan, saying it was too important. So was a bill putting millions of families into poverty not important enough for Labour to properly oppose?

The allure of joining the establishment is all too intoxicating. Just ask Syriza in Greece. But we must not let ourselves be drawn in by it again. Convention is by definition conservative, by definition illiberal. We cannot create a better country through gentlemen’s agreements in lieu of proper reform. Liberalism is about freeing the individual from the grasp of the establishment. Let us fight for that and never forget our purpose.

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