"Social-democratic ministers have generally been able to achieve little in these hybrid formations. Far from presenting a threat to the established order, their main function has been to contain their own parties and and to persuade them to accept the essentially conservative policies which they themselves have sanctioned. For the most part, participation on this basis has been a trap and not a springboard." 1
These words ring true today, particularly with reference to two bills that are ping-ponging their way through parliament; the welfare reform bill (WRB) and health bill. The bills are examples of truly awful legislation, the consequences of which have been poorly thought out or completely disregarded. I will not bore you with details, but the essence of the WRB is an attempt to balance the books by targeting the most vulnerable in society for cuts. The WRB has been widely reported as stopping benefit cheats, which if it was, it would be welcomed. Cutting benefits to disabled children, and declaring cancer patients who are still undergoing chemotherapy, fit for work, is not the same as tackling fraud.
An alternative would be to draft a 'fraud prevention bill'. This would build on the progress of the Labour government in reducing benefit fraud and errors: The bill could be a dual purpose bill addressing both large-scale as well as this small-scale fraud. The bill could close loopholes, tighten up regulation relating to non-domicile status and address tax evasion which is really defrauding the exchequer, or to put it another way, stealing from budgets that should be used to educate the young and heal the sick.
The £26,000 cap is really a smoke screen which lets Tory boy Grant Shapps in the Department of Housing off the hook. The only reason that anyone would ever receive £26,000 in benefits is because there is an abject lack of social housing. This problem has never really been addressed since Thatcher began selling off housing stock 30 years ago. The majority of this £26,000 goes directly into the pockets of private landlords, so who exactly is sponging off the taxpayer? In the North East of England private landlords now own a large proportion of former council housing stock, collecting rent from the taxpayer in the form of housing benefit. The ironic thing is that it was the taxpayer who paid for the houses to be built in the first place. The council stock is largely better maintined, particularly in terms of energy efficiency with loft insulation and double glazing. Those in private rented 'council houses' are at greater risk of high bills and fuel poverty.
It is difficult to offer an alternative to the health bill; it is toxic.
Giving GPs a greater strategic role was already labour policy and Shadow Health secretary Andy Burnham offered to talk with Tories if they wanted to drop the bill but still pursue the idea of GP commissioning, as it would not require legislation.2 The Health bill is now so unpopular that even some Tories are against it; some backbenchers may even defy the whip and vote against the bill or abstain. (Traditionally you can count on the odd Tory to defy the whip in a big vote; they really have no concept of collective action).
It is the Lib Dems who will push these reforms through. Clegg wants them to go through; he is furious that they might be stopped.3 This shows that he really has turned blue, putting the interests of private health care providers ahead of patients. I suspect that the real reason he wants them to go through is so that he can take credit every for every amendment made to this shoddy, needless legislation, painting himself as the moderator of the Nasty Conservative Party.
It is a trap, Nick. Destroying the NHS is the road to electoral ruin, and if Lib Dems are keen to play a part in this privatisation of the NHS then they deserve the consequences that will follow at the ballot box. Miliband was right. Participation in a Conservative led coalition was a trap 1969 and remains a trap today.
Grass roots Lib Dems have now voted not to bother having a vote that could the Health bill at their conference in Gateshead. These are normal activists who must agree with Clegg that the changes have to go through. Many of these activists are sitting or prospective local Councillors. You would have thought they would have got a clear message from the public on this one. They may hear the message more clearly in terms of votes in the next local governement elections.
1. From 'The State in Capitalist Society' R. Miliband 1969