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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Don't sit on your hands

In my last blog, I argued that both the Lib Dems and the Tories needed to make a stronger pitch to the public to explain why coalition government is a different kind of government. To explain why difficult situations arise such as the decision the Lib Dems will soon face over whether to vote or abstain in the tuition fees debate.

The Coalition Agreement gives Lib Dems wriggle room. It allowed the Lib Dems to abstain from the vote in the event that was necessary. Today, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have refused to say whether they will vote for a policy of the Government for which they bear direct responsibility as Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State responsible for Universities.

To abstain would be a outright lunacy. It beggars belief that the key Ministers responsible are even considering it. It may be in the letter of the Coalition Agreement that Clegg and Cable signed up for in May this year. But it is nowhere near the spirit of what they signed up for. They signed up to become responsible, decision-making partners in government. Not part-timers, reserving the right to sit on their hands when the difficult decisions came along.

This is a difficult decision. Tremendously so. But it is also a moment when the Lib Dems need to be bold and implement the strategy I suggested they should adopt of vociferously explaining why coalition government means the junior partner cannot always implement its own policies; explaining why compromises need to be made; explaining why Labour should be ashamed of its hollow criticisms when it let down students time and again when they were a majority government wielding enormous freedom and power.

Abstaining will gain nothing. It will make the party and its MPs look ridiculous. It will not for one moment appease students protesting loudly against this Government policy. And it will achieve nothing: it will not stop the policy, it will not make Lib Dems look student friendly. And it will not be the first time that abstention will be a tempting option when Lib Dem manifesto commitments are not adopted - what next for control orders, for example? The Lib Dems cannot pick and choose which Government policies to support. And if the Lib Dems cannot, then their Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State responsible for the policy certainly cannot either.

It's also crucial to the referendum on the Alternative Vote system due next summer. The living example of coalition government presented to the electorate in May must be one where it can be demonstrated that coalition government works. That it is not a messy substitute for majority government, where coalition partners pick and choose, abstain here and absolve all responsibility there. That will not persuade the public that the coalition governments which a fairer voting system may deliver will in turn deliver stable, united government.

Far better to go for it. Vote strongly for. Explain why it's the right decision. Gain some conviction as a party that is a full-time partner in Government. A party that has moved on from being a party of protest on the sidelines.

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