Are we the party of empty rhetoric?

UPDATE: See below for David Heath’s important comment.

Here be a quote:

Not having any MPs speak against the Digital Economy Bill yesterday sent a signal, though, and not a good one. To me, it said the following:

It said that I can’t rely on Liberal Democrat MPs to speak up for Liberal principles, even when they’re party policy.

It said that as a party member I can do all the right things, jump through the hoops set for me to get my voice heard, and it won’t make any difference.

It said that Nick Clegg’s claims of about being anti-establishment, and of us being the party of real change, were empty rhetoric.

Please proceed immediately to the original post.

(One thing I can’t understand about all this is why we’re not getting more flak from the opposition blogospheres. As things stand, our front bench totally deserves to get showered in shit and it’s just not happening. Total bloody silence. I mean, ok, the other two parties have respectively proposed the Bill and publicly indicated that they won’t oppose it, but when did rank hypocrisy ever stop any opposition blogger having a go at the Lib Dems? COME ON! WHERE’S YER BACKBONE!)

18 Comments

  1. Wow, to say that I’m somewhat disappointed is an understatement.

    Would love to have an explanation from somebody in the Parliamentary Party as to why nobody spoke up – forgive my ignorance on procedural matters, but was there even an opportunity to do so…? A quick glance @ Hansard suggests the only mention of the bill was when Harriet Harman confirmed there would be a 2nd reading on April 6th – who was present at the time that could have spoken up…? Just wondering!

  2. The link to David’s blog tells all – the opportunity was Business Questions when the scheduling of the 6th April reading was announced. John Grogan managed to say something so it seems a little odd our front bench (whoever was there) didn’t.

    It’s not like it was the actual vote, of course, but the silence is far from encouraging.

    1. Course, you might have mentioned that I raised it at Business Questions on March 11th, and that the Labour MPs mentioned have since thanked me for putting on the pressure that has got the bill debated at all in the Commons. This week, having secured a second reading debate on DEB, I wanted to try to get the important private members bills on vulture funds and sustainable communities given time.

      1. Well, I would have done if I’d known about it. I apologise for not spotting that, and I’m genuinely grateful to find you raising it even in advance of Conference.

        Thanks for pointing it out; I’ve put an update to my post on DW.

        1. (Sorry, that first sentence came out sounding snarky. I do honestly feel I should have spotted that, probably a couple of weeks ago.)

      2. David, we have entirely failed to notice this and we shouldn’t have. Am spreading the word a bit.

        (As someone or other said, if you want something kept secret, announce it in the House of Commons.)

        1. It might be worth updating your post to reflect this new information, as I think it’s fair to say the frontbench doesn’t deserve the scatological punishment to which you allude…

  3. It’s weird. The only charitable interpretation is that the first reading of the Bill is not the time to oppose it because, well, there wasn’t actually a vote being held. It would have been a token protest rather than a serious attempt to stop the Bill.

    As I understand it, the Bill will now go through the ‘wash-up’ process, but this requires the party whips to agree to it. It’s possible (though unlikely) that the whips are still planning to engage in last-minute negotiations with the government, during which the Bill will be improved by having certain clauses deleted, and they don’t want to give away their negotiating stance by broadcast this now. Not having any real notion of the psychology of these kinds of Parliamentary procedures, I’ve no idea how likely this is but, as I said, it’s the most charitable reading I can come up with. If the Bill is going to pass anyway, the least we could do is get some MPs in there making it damn clear that we don’t agree with it.

  4. It was business questions (on a wide range of topics) rather than a debate on the Bill itself.

    What matters is whether the party opposes the relevant parts of the Bill when it comes to wash-up – and on that all the noises from the party are (still – even post Business Questions) very positive.

    Indeed expressing concerns in Business Questions and then not voting against the proposals is what would be empty rhetoric🙂

  5. First reading I’m not fussed about. That really is ceremonial (I’m not sure they’re even allowed to vote against it, or whether a vote is taken).

    Mark, Business Questions was used by other MPs to express these concerns. It would have been a good idea for us to have done the same. Tom Watson claimed at the rally on Wednesday that all three front benches were in agreement on the DEBill – and he can get away with that because we’ve not made a big public noise to the contrary. I’m glad you’re hearing encouraging noises, but I’m not and nor are all the people getting their knickers in a twist on Twitter about it. How hard would some kind of public statement of intent be? It’s not a good idea to keep your potential voters guessing and allow your political opponents to misrepresent you.

    However, I just put this over at David’s:

    It seems obvious to us what they should say and when, but when else have any of us followed our party’s parliamentary line on a day-by-day basis about a particular bill, or monitored their reaction to a conference motion this closely? I haven’t. I’ve no idea what our usual Commons tactics are. I don’t know what any of our frontbenchers’ individual views are, but then none of them are my MP and I’ve not written to them to ask. The only LD letter I know the contents of is a sympathetic (anti-Bill) one from David Howarth. It feels like getting blood out of a stone, but that doesn’t mean it feels the same from their point of view.

  6. I’m not particularly bothered by the lack of a fuss being kicked up outside of Parliament about this. The real test of where our frontbench and our whips stand will come during the wash-up. I fully expect our Parliamentary party to endorse fully the policy line agreed at Conference.

    There is a huge gulf between the very slow pace of Parliamentary procedure compared to everything else in the world, and especially the internet/Twitter. It seems to me that the melodrama spouted by some people over this stems either from a certain amount of ignorance over how Parliament works or unreasonable expectations on how far the Lib Dems can influence and scrutinise legislation.

    Wait and see. If we do not make a stand on the 6th of April, that will be the time for complaints and resignations (if you feel that strongly about it).

    1. It does not seem to me unreasonable to expect at least one member of the Parliamentary party to have raised this yesterday. David Heath was there and spoke, so it wasn’t a problem of not getting called. Labour MPs spoke on the Bill, so it was clearly possible to mention it.

      It would have been unreasonable of me to expect them to kill the Bill yesterday. That’s not how Parliamentary procedure works and thank you, I do know that. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have expected one of our MPs to speak on it.

      Lack of influence wouldn’t have stopped them doing that.

      The slow pace of Parliamentary procedure wouldn’t have stopped them doing that.

    2. I should probably point out in David M’s defence that I have, in fact, quoted the most rhetorical and melodramatic bit of his post, and the rest is all a very balanced account of what this looks like from the grassroots.

      But I also think both sides of his balanced account are fair, including the above. This *is* what it looks like. Now, I’ve given some of the melodrama you mention pretty short shrift, and I’ve also reproved people for not bothering to find out how parliament works.

      But I just don’t think it’s good enough to dismiss every bad opinion voiced against the Lib Dems on the subject as the result of ignorance or drama, if nothing else because it gets us nowhere. Ultimately, do we want those people’s votes or don’t we? The party has allowed the PR on this to go completely awry. The speed at which parliament works is irrelevant – it’s the speed at which politics works that we’ve fallen down on. At some point, this stops being about people getting upset on Twitter and starts being about the fact that we allowed Tom bloody Watson to get up and tell a protest rally that our front bench agreed with Labour and the Tories. That is just not good politics, whatever way you look at it.

  7. FYI:

    1st reading of the Bill in the Commons was 16 March. It’s not even ceremonial; it just goes through, no opportunity for debate, let alone a vote. It’s how it works.

    David Heath speaks every week at Business Questions, as do Harriet Harman and George Young. It’s how Business Questions work.

    That said, I suppose it’s fair to argue that this Thursday’s BQs was a missed opportunity for some Lib Dem backbencher to speak up. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily an indictment of them that they didn’t on this occasion. Gerrard, Grogan and Watson had a go from Labour’s backbenches. David Heath didn’t mention it, true, but (a) the Bill isn’t the only matter of interest at the moment, and (b) he did bring it up the week before, and the week before that. BQs isn’t a particularly good forum to extract change from the Gov’t – you moan, the Leader of the House stonewalls, you moan again, she stonewalls again.

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