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Chancellor Vince would be a compromise too far

July 14, 2012

In reaction to the Tories failing to deliver on their Coalition Agreement over Lords reform last week, there have been some ponderings as to what the Lib Dems should ask for instead. A common thread is Vince replacing George Osborne as Chancellor, as proposed by Millennium Dome and Richard Morris among others.

Personally, I’m with Andrew Hickey on this one – our democracy is fundamentally broken, deeply in hock to vested interests, biased towards the already rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised. Given Millennium’s previous post about Lords reform, full of Liberal passion, I’m surprised he’s suggesting throwing it away for a few years of Vince in Number 11.

It’s not that I’m against Vince in Number 11, of course – as we saw during the Chancellor’s Debates before the 2010 General Election, he can wipe the floor with Osborne (and Darling) when it comes to both practical experience and theoretical knowledge of economics. But it’d be a short-term victory. Not even Vince could sort out the UK economy before May 2015 – largely because anything a UK Chancellor can do is tinkering around the edges as the Eurozone crisis rages on our doorstep. Sure, he’d make things fairer and more progressive, for a while – more so than Osborne, and less disastrously than Balls. But come 2015 the chances are we won’t be in Government any more, though I’m not anticipating the wipe-out that some Lib Dems almost seem to welcome as penance for having dared go into Government.

Andrew is right. We need to take the opportunity to get as much democratic reform in place while holding the reins of Government. As junior coalition partner we don’t have all that much power, but it’s infinitely more than we have in opposition. We always knew the Tories would resist reform, and now we’ve had our suspicions confirmed that Labour are all mouth and no trousers when it comes to democracy. Now is the right time to do these things, because we have some power now, and there’s less than 100% chance of us having this much power in future.

So if we are going to compromise on this element of democratic reform, it needs to be for other long-term democratic reform. So far we’ve achieved fixed-term Parliaments – most people haven’t noticed, the rest think it’s just for the Lib Dems’ advantage to stop Cameron kicking us out when he wants to (which contradicts the same peoples’ opinions that the Lib Dems aren’t achieving anything in Government and just capitulating to the Tories every time).

We failed on AV, due to Tory and Labour betrayal and a campaign run by Parliamentary lobbyists rather than grassroots campaigners. Lords reform is looking wobbly. STV for Euros would be nice but not make enough of a difference. Party funding reform is the obvious big thing to go for – take some of the big money out of politics, make parties have to listen to more ordinary people and get them onside. I’d like to see a £20k donation limit, with union donations either a specific extra-cost opt-in or similarly capped.

That said, I don’t think we should bargain. If the party leadership have a plan B, I hope it’s party funding, but they should keep it to themselves and push as hard as possible for Lords. I’m not that bothered about the mechanics – I don’t see the need for a referendum, but we need to reform PPERA to stop No2AV-style libel before one could happen; I’d like 100% elected but as long as it’s at least 50% elected I don’t mind; I think the Bishops’ days are numbered with a majority-elected house whether they’re still in it or not; if there’s a one-term limit, people shouldn’t be able to stand under party banners.

But if Labour and the Tories are so opposed to democracy, and their own manifestos, that Lords reform is impossible, then let’s make a difference for the future, not just for the next few years.

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