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Stewart Jackson MP: Why the Liberal Democrats would be mad to renege on their pledge to support boundary changes

Jackson stewartStewart Jackson is the Member of Parliament for Peterborough.

Now you'd expect me to be the last person in the world whom Liberal Democrats would take any notice of, following my coining of the term "Curse of Clegg" in PMQs last week. It's fair to say that I did embellish a serious point about an immigration loophole with a certain choice description, reflecting the frustration many Conservative MPs feel at their Coalition colleague's "differentiation" strategy - or put simply - rubbishing the Tories at every opportunity and taking the credit for "good" policies and distancing themselves from the less popular but invariably courageous and right ones.

Recently, there have been dark mutterings from "senior Liberal Democrats" that the quid pro quofor the Conservative Parliamentary Party supporting the AV Referendum last May, a key element in the Voting Systems and Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2011, was no longer to be fairer and more equal Parliamentary boundaries being in place for the 2015 General Election but was in fact now reform of the House of Lords. Indeed Lord Oakshott, very much on the conspiratorial Tory-loathing wing of the the Lib Dems, even openly and rather petulantly threatened to welsh (sic) on the deal on television last week.

So would it be a good idea for our Coalition colleagues to break a solemn pledge when the Parliamentary Order for the boundary changes come before to the Commons and Lords, probably in about May 2013

Any such course of action would I believe backfire on the Liberal Democrats and here's why.

Firstly, Lords reform will not only split the two main political parties and will take an inordinate amount of time getting through both Houses of Parliament but it will divide the Lib Dems too. Respected Lib Dem Peers such as former Party Leader Lord Steel of Aikwood and Lord Cotter, have warned that the time is not right for such comprehensive, radical and revolutionary constitutional change. When is it ever? After all, the last epoch-making reformist Bill affecting the House of Lords, the Parliament Act 1911, is a century on the Statute Book and every government since has vowed to continue reform and it has on this intractable issue, simply run into quicksand. This most assuredly is not the "legacy" issue Nick Clegg so hankers for.

Secondly, the Parliamentary vote on boundary changes will be a piece of secondary legislation in so far as the Bill giving rise to the changes has already passed both Houses with the strong support of the entire Parliamentary Liberal Democrat and Conservative Parties. Reducing the size of Parliament and the cost of politics was also contained in the 2010 General Election manifesto of both of the Coalition parties.

Thirdly, projections of electoral doom for individual Lib Dem MPs under the new boundaries are probably wide of the mark. Most psephologists predict that they will lose between 5 and 7 of their seats (out of 57 currently) but this ignores their strong record of localist campaigning and incumbency even after previous boundary changes which have allowed them invariably to buck the electoral trend better than the other two main parties. A good example of this was Sir Malcolm Bruce, who was predicted to lose the Gordon seat by a landslide in 1983 but remains with us in the Commons today! Most recently, in 2010 Sarah Teather held the newly redrawn Brent Central seat despite bleak projections of her demise and there are many other examples across the UK. Most sensible Conservatives know that the Lib Dems are still gifted, hard working and canny campaigners and will do better than their current opinion poll ratings suggest and certainly when those ratings rise in a General Election campaign, as they inevitably will.

Fourthly, Lib Dem and swing voters especially will not forgive Lib Dems for precipitating the demise of the Coalition government, probably two years before it is due to end, not on a point of principle, such as on tuition fees, tax policy, social policy like gay marriage, Trident, the European treaty veto or the health or welfare bills but issue of narrow partisan electoral self interest, i.e. unhappiness at boundary changes (which they had already voted for in February 2011). They will be perplexed and enraged that the opportunity to exercise power and enact further policy on key issues close to their heart for a further 12 months at least, will have been thrown away. Voters also, when prompted, agree with the simply proposition that each constituency should be of equalsize to ensure fairness and equity. Who can argue with that?

And end the Coalition it emphatically would: No smoke and mirrors "nudge nudge, wink wink" to Lib Dem backbenchers to vote the boundary changes down whilst Ministers went through the lobby with their Conservative colleagues: No this will have to be a D'Artagnan moment: "All for one and one for all"! If Lib Dem Ministers really did renege on their undertaking to support the boundary changes, then their Ministerial careers, limousines, civil service briefings, red boxes, power and influence would end there and then, perhaps for ever.

Similarly, Conservative colleagues who plan to vote against the changes (after voting for them, John Kerry-like) will face the same awkward questions and unprecedented pressure from the whips on this most existential issue for the Conservative Party (and I've been there!) Incidentally, in the spirit of full disclosure, my seat does get slightly better under the new boundary proposals. And I support the Coalition government running its full five year course (Peter Bone look away now!)

On a more general point, I believe that the Lib Dems are fighting the last war. Surely it is in their interests for their supporters (currently around 10% of the electorate) to believe that the Coalitionwith the active assistance of the Lib Dems had been a success, especially at the end of a potentially fractious five year term. To continue to undermine and attack their partners plays to a demographic which is no longer in the building: The Tory-hating 2010 Lib Dem voters are now ensconced with Labour or the Greens or even UKIP or may have given up voting. To aim your political message at them is arguably both foolish and counter productive. It's surely better to consolidate and build upon the 10% who wish the party well and hope the Coalition succeeds and are pleased with Lib Dem "wins" in areas like the Pupil Premium, civil liberties and taking poorer working people out of punitive tax rates. This is a realistic basis for a Lib Dem "legacy" and smart Lib Dem Ministers like Jeremy Browne understand this. To bail out in high dudgeon on an issue too obscure for most voters to empathise with or understand would mean the Lib Dems reaping a bitter electoral harvest. It would I believe actually assist the Conservatives in winning an overall majority in the House of Commons.

Many wise Lib Dems know that their party activists, councillors, peers and MPs, need to let off steam and that's fair and reasonable. However much they may feel they're in a loveless marriage, breaking a solemn promise might very well feel good for a day or so but it might mean the Lib Dems will all be able to fit into Simon Hughes's big yellow taxi after the next General Election, back to the bad old days of 1970 when they returned just six MPs. The dreams of being power brokers in the next Parliament or beyond would be lying shattered.

Is that really what the party wants?


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