Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Been there. Done that.

Feeling strangely uninspired writing about the Liberal Democrats. That's wrong isn't it? We're all supposed to be mad about the boy. It's Pavlovian - years of hearing the words "Liberal Democrat" and plunging immediately into a fugue-like trance. But lift my knee and slap my plump pantomime thigh, that first TV debate was a "game-changer" we're all agreed - suddenly the Liberal Democrats are interesting, and the words "Clegg" and "charisma" are appearing in the same sentences without the word "bypass" following close behind.

Time to take a gander then at local Liberal Democrat Sir Alan Beith. Sir Alan and I go way back to when I was a big-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears local reporter and he was the title-free, chronically hard-working MP for Berwick and I could never get any of his press releases into the paper, which used to pain him. Hopefully, he has by now forgiven me but I didn't like to ask when I met him for a nice cup of tea and a chat at the weekend.

A Methodist lay preacher, Sir Alan lists his hobbies as historic buildings, boats, music and walking, while on Facebook the groups he has joined include
* "We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!",
* "I'm voting for the Liberal Democrats in 2010" (you'd hope so, wouldn't you?), and
* "Forgotten Berwick"
Berwick itself is one of the biggest seats in England - at more than 1,000 square miles - and its 58,000-strong electorate has been represented by Sir Alan for 37 years. That does not stop him campaigning under the slogan "Change that works for Northumberland."

At a Tory meeting recently, I was taken aback by the animosity of some members towards the veteran MP and their conviction that the constituency has suffered from under-investment because of his party allegiance.
Beith rejects such criticism. "I've never lacked the access and I've been around a long time, " he said. "Most ministers know I've been in parliament longer than they have."
Among his achievements he points to saving the local RAF base from closure, improvements to the rail timetable, helping those affected by flooding, and the dualling of key sections of the A1 (the main North-South arterial route through the region, stretches of which remain single carriageway and used by tractors).

Indeed, his campaign literature informs me I am in the presence of the "local champion with a national reputation".
My favorite quote:
"Traditional Conservative voters are saying 'we don't know what David Cameron stands for - at least we know what we're getting with Alan Beith'."
And my second favorite goes to the "local people" who pose the rhetorical question:
"Wouldn't it be great if more MPs were like Sir Alan Beith."
The leaflet spells out the battle lines for Berwick "Labour can't win here...It's a two horse race," that is to say, the Lib Dems have 52.8%, Tories 28.9% and Labour 18.3%.

The Guardian describes the seat as "fairly safe" for the Lib Dems. Tory candidate Anne Marie Trevelyan has been fighting hard but needs a swing of just under 12% to take it. That's tough - particularly against a Lib Dem rather than a Labour incumbent. Then again, she's a particularly good candidate, the local party has its dander up and it's the sort of seat where people vote for Sir Alan because he helped them when they needed him, but at heart they tell you they are Tory.
However, even if Anne Marie had been picking up disillusioned Labour voters and the natural Tories were indeed persuaded to vote for her, the Liberal Democrat surge courtesy of Clegg-mania must put paid to her hopes (or at least put paid to them till Clegg tanks tonight's foreign affairs debate or completely fails to heal a leper the Daily Mail sends out after him tomorrow.)

Beith then has the numbers in his favour, but is taking nothing for granted. Understandable, when he took the seat in a by-election in 1973 by just 57 votes (Tory incumbent Lord Lambton having resigned after being photographed in bed with two prostitutes and smoking marijuana. You can bet he wasn't doing that in Berwick.) In the two elections of 1974, Sir Alan held on to his seat with majorities of 443 and 74. This means as the longest-serving MP on the Liberal Democrat benches, he has already lived through a hung parliament, minority government and in 1977, a Lib-Lab pact.

Naturally enough, Beith was delighted with the reaction to his leader's performance in the first debate. He was cautious in his predictions but believed the election looks as if it will produce no overall majority .
If there is a hung parliament, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg could well be the kingmaker. But how would he decide who to work with I asked Beith - particularly if one party picked up more seats and another more votes.
"Nick has said the party with the greatest authority to form a government is the one that has commanded the greatest support. He's not gone into the seats and votes issue."
Beith was reassuring of the consequences of any hung parliament. "We will be taking a responsible line. So far from there being a danger in a hung parliament, if Vince Cable has more influence over the way the economy is managed I think most people would recognise that would be a better and not a worse situation."

In the Lib-Lab pact of `77, Liberal MPs agreed to support the Labour government on votes of confidence in return for agreement on fighting inflation, devolution, appointing a minister for small business and direct elections to the European Parliament. This entailed a consultative structure between Liberal spokesmen and ministers. If there was still disagreement, the matter then went to a joint committee which included Beith.
"It's workable, “Beith said of a pact, “but the disadvantage is it's mainly negative power - not wholly, we got things done - but essentially it's a negative power and you don't get the credit for the successes that you can in a coalition."
Any experience about what the party does this time around would be informed by the Liberal experience of the seventies, he said but refused to say whether he favoured a coalition (which in any event requires the broad agreement of the party membership) rather than supporting government on a more ad hoc basis.
“You have to make judgment in situation that arises. You see what the British people decide,” he said.

His own autobiography “A View from the North” however is more explicit, warning of the need to prepare and consult, and expounding on the virtues of working in a coalition.
It says `the pact convinced me that if you are going to work with another party in government, you should do it through a coalition in which you hold key ministerial positions: without this, your input is severely limited and the government machinery is only working for the party which has ministerial office.

Of course that still leaves the question a coalition with who exactly?


billatbingley said...

I reckon that Berwick have got a good man in Sir Alan Beith. I don't recall him being mixed up in any of the government sleaze. To be MP for 37 years tells me that he is well liked and respected or that he has been able to pull the wool over a lot of people's eyes for an awful long time. I suspect it is the former!

Aidan said...

Hmmm, not so sure about that. I'm not convinced that a man who claims £11000 (between him and his wife in The Lords) to fit a kitchen into his rented flat has thought out all of implications of value to the taxpayer!

Mr Beiths' main problem is lack of influence...we'd probably have the A1 dualled by now if we'd had either a Tory or Labour MP - we've only had 13.6 miles out of 49 milesdualled in 37 years (checked it on Google Earth)

...but then I would say all that as I'm an unashamed Tory!

NorthernLass said...

Aidan, the Tories PROMISED to dual it in 1992. In fact just a few weeks before the election Malcolm Rifkind said that work would start in May. You might remember the jubilation in the local press - I do!
I suppose it's only fair to point out he didn't say which May - but despite 5 more years of Conservative government we got nothing.
A reputation for keeping one's promises is very hard to regain when it's be lost.

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