Should our MPs give Clegg more support in the Commons?

by Stephen Tall on July 6, 2010

Yesterday Nick Clegg stood up as Deputy Prime Minister in the House of Commons and announced there would be a referendum to reform the voting system within the next year.

If I’d suggested just a few weeks ago that I would be able to type that sentence with a straight face I imagine most folk would think I’d lost any grasp on reality. Yet it’s what happened.

True, the route to Nick becoming Deputy Prime Minister is not proving easy: coalition with the Tories is forcing uncomfortable compromises on the Lib Dems. And true, the alternative vote is not a proportional electoral system.

But, still, yesterday was by any measure an historic day for the Lib Dems and those who have long dreamed of a fairer voting system.

So I was curious to read this account of the proceedings of the House of Commons by Nicholas Watt in the Guardian, headlined Nick Clegg swipes away opponents but receives little support from Liberal Democrats during historic Commons statement:

… Clegg dealt with his opponents with skill. Sadly for him, there was little support from his own party. A mere seven Lib Dem MPs asked him questions during his statement. Of these, only three could be classed as wholly supportive.

Watt goes on to list the seven Lib Dem MPs – all of whom, I should say, made valid points and asked pertinent questions And indeed Simon Hughes made clear his support in a statement:

After 13 years of Labour inaction, Nick Clegg today announced a welcome and major series of progressive political reforms. The coalition Government has decided in one move to give all voters a much greater say in who is chosen to represent them and to give Parliament a much greater say in the business of Government.

“With an easier and more up to date electoral register in the future, the whole of Britain will have a much more representative democracy. We will also end the scandal where votes have been of unequal value and in many places of no value at all – and where many people have scandalously not even been allowed to vote.”

But the impression has been created that Nick cuts a lonely figure in championing the coming referendum – and that is, I think, unfortunate.

To be clear, I am not suggesting for one moment that our MPs become mere cheerleaders for the leadership, burying their doubts and questions, and translating themselves into backbench cannon fodder. No-one who knows Lib Dems would imagine for a moment that such an eventuality could ever happen.

Sometimes, though, the liberal thirst to prove our scepticism and independence can suggest indifference or even hostility. And in the circumstances that’s unfortunate – the vast majority of the Tory party is opposed to Nick’s measures, while this opportunistic tribal Labour party will throw anything and everything at the Coalition in the hope it can cause damage. Nick was ploughing a lonely furrow in the Commons yesterday, and stronger support from Lib Dem MPs would not have been an unreasonable request.

Perhaps the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party had not had opportunity to question Nick on the details of his announcement, and maybe felt bounced. If so, that’s a legitimate issue to be addressed by Lorely Burt, the LDPP’s chair.

We are in an overly-febrile political situation where the stakes are high. It is right that Lib Dem MPs and members hold the leadership to account, and ensure our principles are adhered to and as many of our policies as possible implemented. We should also remember, however, that the leadership is shouldering a heck of a responsibility right now – and support should not be a one-way street.