What I heard from the recent Liberal Democrat conference has left me not just disappointed, but angry. I can see why, given their poor ratings in the polls, they are keen to trumpet what they see as the “successes” of the coalition as their doing. They plead “not guilty” to aiding and abetting the Tories. And they are desperate to dump the blame solely on the Tories for the policies with which they don’t want to be associated.
But we can’t forget how many of this government’s policies the Lib Dems have happily supported that are so absolutely against the grain of everything I thought their party believed in. On many occasions, things could have been so different – on many of these policies we could and should have worked together, and we’d have blocked their passage or ameliorated the worst excesses.
Let’s take my own area of justice. Lib Dem votes have delivered cuts to legal aid, curtailment of judicial review, extension of secret courts, probation privatisation and the introduction of employment tribunal fees – a pretty illiberal list by any stretch of the imagination. On each of these, it was left to Labour to expose the true impact of these policies, and bring forward amendments and proposals which would have tempered the worst excesses.
The problem the Liberal Democrats have got themselves into is what I’d call the “having your cake and eating it” approach to government. They’ve tried to make out they are both in government and not in government at the same time. The worst thing about this approach is the disrespect it shows to the public.
This is what makes me angry. Under Nick Clegg’s leadership the Lib Dems treat the voters as if they are mugs. Week after week in the House of Commons I’ve seen one or two Lib Dem MPs speak against illiberal policies and troop through the “no” lobby with us while the other 50 odd Lib Dem MPs slavishly support the government. This is faux opposition from a party that’s actually in government and it’s just not good enough. At a time when the public’s confidence in our elected representatives could not be lower, rather than take steps to fix this, the Lib Dems are entrenching this disillusionment further.
Unlike the Liberal Democrats, I’ve been very clear on a number of the policies Labour opposes. Take their reckless probation privatisation as an example, and the handing over of £6billion of taxpayers’ money to the usual suspects like Capita, A4E and Sodexo. We oppose the gamble this government is taking with public safety.
What’s more, this fits a pattern of more and more of our money being handed over to private companies, who are rarely held accountable for their actions as they are beyond the scope of freedom of information. Labour wouldn’t do things this way – if we are in government next May we will extend the legislation so that private companies running public services are subject to the same disinfecting transparency as the public sector. I’d rather not waste words on Chris Grayling’s ridiculous ban on sending books to prisoners, delivered with Lib Dem support – except to say we’d reverse it.
And Labour has also shown a distinct way forward with its strong commitment to the Human Rights Act and our membership of the European Convention on Human Rights. I’ve made clear our determination to drive down re-offending through reforming prisons. Work I commissioned will report shortly on ways we can diversify our judiciary, and on the country’s first ever victims’ law. As a possible future Justice Secretary, I give my assurances I will show much greater respect to the rule of law than the current incumbent.
We’ve always known the Tories were the nasty party. But I hope the public don’t believe the Lib Dem rhetoric of having to make hard choices to allow our country to recover. How about asking the families attending my weekly advice surgery who have the bailiffs knocking at the door as a result of the cruel bedroom tax about hard choices? I’d love to hear Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes answer the question of where I should direct the constituents that come to see me needing legal advice but without funds to pay a lawyer, those who’ve been victims of sexual harassment to those whose benefit entitlement has been miscalculated as a result of ATOS. Under the last Labour government there were five Law Centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux locally I could send them to. Under this government there are none.
So no – I won’t be happy with the situation I’ll inherit in 2015 on access to justice, left the privilege of the rich by Lib Dem actions. But I’ll turn the justice system upside down to deliver up the resources we need to repair the Lib Dems damage. The Lib Dems are guilty as charged of aiding and abetting the Tories. And they deserve a long spell out of harm’s way as a punishment. It will be left to Labour will be left to pick up the pieces.
Sadiq Khan is Labour MP for Tooting and shadow justice secretary