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18 July 2014

Why the Lib Dems should back Labour and completely oppose the bedroom tax

The Lib Dem's "u-turn" on the bedroom tax isn't enough; they should come out completely against the policy.

By Mark Thompson

Following the announcement by the Lib Dems that has been widely interpreted as them wanting to “axe” the Bedroom Tax the party is likely to soon be left in a dilemma.

What they are actually calling for is in line with the policy that the party’s activists voted for at their conference which is to reform the hated policy. The changes proposed would see only those who were offered a smaller house who then refused it penalised and disabled people would not be expected to move if they needed the extra room.

So far so sensible. The problem is that after the coverage and the way the Lib Dem leadership has allowed this hare to run they will be in real trouble if as expected Labour manage to table a vote to scrap the Bedroom Tax altogether.

This would yet again leave the yellows in an excruciating position. In order to maintain governmental coherence and collective responsibility under these sort of circumstances you would expect a party of government to back the agreed and already voted on, established policy. But we’ve just had days of headlines about how Clegg wants to “axe” it which they are reportedly happy with (as they consider their policy tantamount to scrapping it). It will of course look ridiculous to most people if just days after this “u-turn” the party appears to then “u-turn” again and vote for the policy they just told us they were against. After they were for it before.

Let’s just pause for a minute here. Nick Clegg can be accused of many things and regularly is but I think lots of people recognise he has been on a sticky wicket since May 2010. However one criticism I think it fair to level at him is that he seems incapable of looking more than a couple of moves ahead in the political chess game. We have seen this time and again. If he had properly considered what was going to happen if the Lib Dems ended up in government in 2009 he would never have urged his PPCs to sign the (now disastrous) tuition fees pledge. If he had thought long enough about how to get meaningful electoral reform through in this session he may well have decided getting some form of PR for local council elections may have been doable and even palatable to some Tories living in areas dominated by Labour councillors instead of the huge defeat AV was.

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And we see the same pattern played out again here. Shouting loudly about how much the party now dislikes the bedroom tax is all well and good but where’s the beef? It did not take a strategic genius to work out that Labour would take the opportunity to try and embarrass the Lib Dems (yet again) by calling for a vote to scrap it (yet again).

The Lib Dems have been in an impossible position for years. They are unable to get all the policies they want to in government and as a result they have been “punished” by the electorate. They are to an extent authors of many of their own misfortunes but the electoral system is against them, collective responsibility is against them and almost all the press is against them.

Enough is enough.

The time has come for the party to do something completely left field. If Labour do bring forward a motion to scrap the bedroom tax, Clegg should instruct his party to vote for it. It may not be exactly what party policy is (they want to improve it but keep the essential principle) but frankly the Tories will never allow what the Lib Dems want while they’re in government anyway. So what Labour would be proposing is close enough.

Of course there will be consequences from this. It could conceivably bring down the government. At the very least it could make things difficult for both coalition partners.

The issue has become so totemic to so many people that a totemic response is required. If it brings the coalition to a premature end then so be it (although once his bluff is called I expect Cameron will ultimately not force this). At least Clegg will have done this on an issue worth fighting for. The alternative is to yet again be cast as unprincipled, untrustworthy and essentially a liar.

Oh and to those who will claim I am politically naive to even suggest this or that it would be too damaging to the running of government I will just remind them that a few weeks back when the Tories wanted to get a policy through on knife crime that their coalition Lib Dem partners did not want what did they do? They teamed up with Labour to push it through anyway.

Clegg should bear that fact in mind when deciding whether to stick to “the rules” that only ever seem to shaft his party.

​Mark Thompson (@MarkReckons) is a political blogger and commentator who edits the award-winning Mark Thompson’s Blog.

He is also co-host of the House of Commons podcast.

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