FEfocus Editorial - What price Lib Dem principles?
As FE Focus went to press, the result of the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election was not yet known. But the run-up to the poll did not bode well for the Liberal Democrats, when everything should have been going their way.
The election was called because Labour MP Phil Woolas had been stripped of his seat for making false claims about his Lib Dem opponent in election materials. And yet the opinion polls suggested the Lib Dems were trailing. When the public are reluctant to punish a party for lying, something is wrong.
Simon Hughes's haunted demeanour at the "Save EMA" meeting (page 1) suggests the same thing. He is a man uneasy with himself, keen that people understand that, deep down, he stands up for what he believes in, and the occasional abstention should be overlooked.
He must ask himself if the compromise is worth it. His six-month job does not come with many perks, and if you're going to sell your soul it is best to at least get the going rate. He has made the trade for influence. But as one campaigner at the meeting said, what better influence does an MP have than his vote?
Nick Clegg is by some accounts struggling with a related issue of the disappearance of the independent Liberal Democrat political voice. He has suggested that the Lib Dems should publicise their disagreements with the Conservatives to preserve their distinctive political identity.
This is wrong and cowardly. Cabinet collective responsibility means you do not get to file a minority report. If you do not resign, it is your policy.
The tuition fees debate was perhaps a case apart, where the Coalition agreement allowed for Liberal Democrats to abstain (though 21 had the courage of their convictions and rebelled, an odd expression for voting according to the manifesto on which you were elected).
But the abolition of EMA was not in the Coalition agreement, so Lib Dems should not feel in the slightest constrained to support it. Neither, for that matter, should Conservatives, who were elected on a promise to preserve it. Asked the straight question as to whether he would scrap EMA, Michael Gove was unambiguous: "We won't."
(On Facebook, 91 people "like" the page "David Cameron is not scrapping EMA, now shut up". True to form, the page has been silent since the election.)
There is no excuse for the U-turn. The scale of the deficit was well- known. The research now selectively used to attack EMA was established. Yet there was a promise to keep it.
It sometimes seems that Lib Dems would like to be seen as the conscience of this Government, quietly munching their muesli and dispensing sane and compassionate advice to rein in the berserkers of the Tory right.
Now is the time for people like Simon Hughes to prove it, to rebel and not merely abstain next Wednesday, and to drag the Conservatives, kicking and screaming if necessary, towards keeping their own promises.
That is also the way to prove they are still an independent political force, capable of bringing about change and worthy of our votes whenever the next election is held.