This weekend Liberals should trumpet their influence
I would usually be penning this article on the train to whichever fabulous city has granted the Liberal Democrats' wish to grace it with a fair conference. Alas, sadly, I’ll be watching from afar this spring but as Liberal Democrats mass in Gateshead I do have a message for you. Use your power wisely.
The Health and Social Care bBll, like so many this Parliament, has been difficult to navigate for the party. The course has been choppy. Liberal MPs and Lords have set a course of restraining the Tory wind trying to drift the country to the right and resisting Labour's siren call of outright opposition, which risks driving party, coalition and health service onto the rocks.
One of those sirens - Andy Burnham - is on Lib Dem Voice today. Aside from the fact that Lib Dem members have the kind of power over policy that the Labour grassroots can only dream of, Burnham is imploring Liberal Democrat members to join Labour in calling for the bill to be dropped.
This is the same man who, as Labour health secretary, waved through millions in private finance initiatives, paid private companies £250m for operations they didn’t carry out, set up privately-run foundation hospitals and did nothing to amend Labour's 2006 NHS Bill, which introduced private companies and EU competition law in the first place.
On Wednesday I dropped in to the Unite NHS lobby in Parliament. The union official chairing it said he wanted to defeat the bill to punish the Liberal Democrats for going into the coalition. "We need their support to do so," he said, but "we owe them no favours and they will get what’s coming for them afterwards". I didn’t hear him give a single reason to oppose the bill that wasn’t in Labour and the unions' political interests.
The bill is bad for nurses, say the unions. It’s a Tory bill to rip the heart out of the NHS, say Labour. Neither has given a second thought to the needs of patients or the sustainability of our National Health Service going into the future.
The easy days of opposition are gone. It might not be a Liberal bill, but it is a better bill after gaining a heavy Liberal hue - amended by Liberals to ensure there will be no American-style privatisation, that commissioning bodies respond to local needs and enlist local stakeholders, and that healthcare will still be publicly funded and free at the point of use.
We have maintained Monitor, and ensured that private companies tendering for services under the coalition won’t be able to cherry pick easy contracts and will have to compete on quality of care, not, as was the case under Labour, price.
Labour offers no alternative to address the problems of an ageing population served by our National Health Service. In the last Parliament Labour knew that reform was needed, in this Parliament they have reverted to type, opposing ‘Tory’ bills and asking us to help them come up with a policy.
It might be tempting to some Lib Dems to go back to what’s familiar and oppose outright. Things are different now. The party has both a responsibility to ensure that we govern in the national interest and a need to explain and re-explain why we’re in politics and government in the first place.
There will be no praise from Labour if we join them in hollow opposition, just allegations of flip flops and the gift of a golden crutch for Ed Miliband’s ailing leadership.
There are two NHS motions likely to be debated this weekend and party members will get to decide on them. As you fill in your ballot, I would ask you to ensure we debate and pass a motion that highlights Lib Dem achievements in government, which trumpets our influence and reminds people why we are in government: to serve, to make Britain more Liberal and to provide an alternative to Tory and Labour petty self interest.