Could NHS reform be the Lib Dems' downfall?

Dissent among party members over the health and social care bill has overshadowed spring conference.

This weekend's Liberal Democrat party conference has been dominated by one issue: the NHS. Yesterday, it looked as if dissent among the party rank and file had been stifled, when a vote to "kill the bill" was blocked. A rival motion that called on Lib Dems to support the health and social care bill, put forward by Baroness Shirley Williams, was selected instead. This was a relief for Nick Clegg and the rest of the party leadership, under pressure from rebels who see the Lib Dems as having sold out their social democratic principles. Clegg, speaking to Sky News, was adamant that reform did not threaten the NHS:

Of course it's unsettling when you see lots of people saying "it's going to privatise the NHS and destroy the NHS". If I thought it was going to privatise or destroy the NHS, it would never have seen the light of day.

But the reprieve was short lived: today, members partly rejected the "Shirley Williams motion" and refused to fully endorse the bill. Activists voted 314 against 270 to remove a crucial line calling for peers to support its final stages.

This will have little effect on the bill's passing - Lib Dem members have not called on peers to block the bill, but in a sign of how unhappy many are, they can not bring themselves to support it, either.

This is an embarrassment for Clegg, who will now be accused of supporting a reform that not even his own party members want. It's an embarrassment for the party, too, who now appear to be pushing ahead with NHS "privatisation", even though they can't decide if they like it or not. If the Lib Dems were hoping this conference would galvanise public support, and start winning back voters who have deserted the party since 2010, they may have been sorely mistaken.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496