Liberal Democrat MPs have been described as ‘human shields’ for the Conservative coalition partners, but Aled Thomas finds Cheltenham Lib Dem backbencher Martin Horwood still optimistic.
Despite recent local election results which suggest a meltdown at the next General Election there is a good joke circulating among Liberal Democrat MPs.
Member for Cheltenham, Martin Horwood said: “Somebody mentioned that if it carries on like this we could be out of power for a generation. Seeing as we’d been out of power for four generations before this, that seems to be a considerable improvement.”
Horwood, an MP since 2005, will face a challenge from the Tories in four years time, and said he is optimistic that he and his colleagues will be able to win back voters who appear angry with the party.
He added that when Liberal Democrat members agreed to enter a coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives, a certain amount of electoral damage was expected.
“I’ll be able to point out all the progressive policies that wouldn’t have been there if the Conservatives were in government on their own. From raising people under £10,000 out of income tax altogether, to the Pupil Premium which targets the worst off pupils, to our green agenda and civil liberties.”
A key focus of the Coalition Government for many Lib Dems was the referendum on a change from the first-past-the-post voting system to the Alternative Vote. Support for the change has fallen dramatically since the Coalition agreement was first struck in May, with a YouGov poll showing a five point lead for the Yes vote has now dropped 10 points behind the No vote. It seems unlikely that the Lib Dems will gain anything significant from their time in government except experience. The pre-Coalition warnings that David Cameron was simply using the Lib Dems to gain a route into power look to be coming to fruition.
Horwood is adamant he will fight against a Conservative challenger, despite being sure the coalition will last its full five years: “There won’t be any ‘coupon’ election, and if there was I wouldn’t take the coupon.
“Liberal Democrats will be able to point out the things that would have happened if the Conservatives had been alone in government; the Superannuation Bill which would have been a much more brutal attack on Civil Service pensions, Andrew Lansley’s original plans for NHS reforms, which differed massively from the coalition agreement.”
While Horwood recognises the difficulties the first year of government has presented to the Liberal Democrats, he said the party went in with its eyes open: “Remember it was the agreement of 99 per cent of the party membership, not just ministers and MPs to do this.
“We knew there would be some damage, and this has hit us particularly hard in Scotland, but it was the right thing to do for the country. And if we had turned our back on the opportunity to use power to do the things we’ve been talking about for 80 years, like equality of opportunity, we would have become an irrelevance.”
Much has been made of a cooling of relations between the two parties, especially since the referendum on the Alternative Vote, and Horwood is as angry as any Liberal Democrat about what they see as a dirty No campaign. But he remains upbeat about working with the Conservatives.
He said: “The dynamic is interesting, where we disagree, it’s open and honest. An example is the European Bill, we were coming from positions, but the debate was happening between government parties, and it sort of made Labour irrelevant in that.
“It’s a change from the rigid party lines and whips.”
But he admits that some aspects of collation government have not worked out as planned: “We should have realised that abstention against policies we don’t agree with wouldn’t really cut it. We should have agreed to allow backbenchers in particular to vote against and if that meant the government didn’t get everything it wanted, well so be it.
“It’s also been difficult because we don’t have ministers in every department, where the Conservatives have ministers pretty much anywhere, so we have set up parliamentary committees to cover all departments.
“We did talk about an arms length ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement but that sort of half-way house wouldn’t have fitted the bill."
At the last election Cheltenham was targeted heavily by the Conservatives who even held their 2009 Spring Forum in the town. How will Horwood persuade Labour and left-leaning Lib Dem voters to support him while he and his party are helping to deliver Conservative policies, particularly spending cuts?
“Well, let’s be honest, everyone said there would have to be cuts, because we couldn’t keep spending what we were. Nick Clegg even said there would have to be ‘savage cuts’ and was lambasted at the time. We went further than the other parties by identifying areas where money could be saved by not immediately agreeing to Trident renewal.”
Horwood said many left-leaning voters may be more upset with the Liberal Democrats because they would have had had no positive expectations of a Conservative government anyway: “They would have just expected the Tories to be Tories.
“But we will just have to point out the progressive policies the Lib Dems have brought in, such as guaranteeing 0.7 per cent of the national budget will be spent on foreign aid. And we’ll point out there would be many fewer progressive achievements if we hadn’t been in government.
“I just hope that Lib Dem successes bring us the electoral credit we will deserve.”
The Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham discusses life in the Coalition Government
by Aled Thomas (30 May 2011)