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Once the Liberal Democrats stood for constitutional reform...

Clegg looks for new ideas

...but the Coalition has spectacularly failed to deliver any. What went wrong?

For more than a generation one of the issues most clearly identified with the Liberal Party and its successor the Liberal Democrats has been constitutional reform. Surely, people naively thought, the one price the Liberal Democrats would demand for entering into a coalition if and when they had the chance would be electoral reform for Westminster elections?

That chance came in 2010. It also went as they failed to pin down commitments to support reform of the electoral system, let alone the House of Lords, in the Coalition agreement. Now that chance has gone, probably for a generation.

The last prospect for any sort of constitutional reform evaporated last week when the Liberal Democrats withdrew their support for the reduction in the number of constituencies and the equalisation in the size of those constituencies. This was in retaliation for the Tories failing to back modest plans for House of Lords reform.

The Liberal Democrats only have themselves to blame for these failures: indeed, most of the blame probably resides with Nick Clegg. Without a proper commitment in the Coalition Agreement to support electoral reform, ie proportional representation, for Westminster elections, it was going to take skilful negotiation and careful timing to achieve anything. The headlong rush to hold a referendum in the first year of the government showed that Mr Clegg grasped neither of these necessities and consequently a half-baked proposal was thoroughly trounced in the public vote.

The linking of House of Lords reform with the House of Commons boundary reviews seems bizarre as there is no logical reason why one should be dependent on the other. With the Tories very lukewarm on Lords reform, despite clear manifesto commitments in successive elections, this was always a crisis waiting to happen. With the Liberal Democrats similarly unsure of the boundary reviews, the stalemate that sees nothing happen makes them feel they are all square.

The biggest beneficiaries of all this will be the Labour Party. On their behaviour in this Parliament they deserve no credit in the constitutional reform stakes, having been divided an unsupportive on electoral reform and cynical in their approach to the debates on House of Lords reform. However, the Labour Party can point to the first term Blair government as being the most reforming government in decades, delivering genuine devolution to Scotland and Wales and the first stage of Lords reform with the curtailment of the rights of hereditary peers.

All of which will lead people to start asking what the Liberal Democrats are there for?

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