Where next for Lib Dem 'muscular liberalism'?

By Norman Smith
Chief political correspondent, BBC Radio 4

image captionWhat issues will Nick Clegg flex his muscles on next?

In their first foray into muscular liberalism the Liberal Democrats chalked up a victory on the NHS reforms. There is no shortage of ideas from activists about where the yellow flag should be planted next.

Benefits, pensions, taxation, Lords reform - ask any Liberal Democrat for suggestions on where their party should make its next stand and the list is endless.

From the top to the bottom of the party, there is a hankering for clear yellow lines running through government policy.

However, where those lines should be drawn to best reassert the Lib Dems' independence, is much harder to agree.

Mark Park, who edits the Liberal Democrat Voice blog, argues that banking is the most logical place to start.

Like the health reforms, banking was the subject of a well-supported motion at the party's spring conference demanding a tougher stance from MPs.

It is also an issue that resonates with the general public.

"It is one of those issues that's very dear to people's hearts and is also a substantive issue that's really important to get right for our future economic health and well-being," Mr Pack says.

"I think overall the public is much more on the side of people like Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable, who are saying the banking system really needs to change radically, than those Conservative traditional types who really seem to think: 'Let's just let the finance sector do what it always does'."

Other Liberal Democrats are keen to see the thin blue line backed up by a yellow one.

Councillor Chris White says the Tories' plans for police reform, including elected police commissioners, have failed to grasp the concerns of voters.

"What voters are actually concerned about is whether police officers are responsive, whether policing is efficient," he says.

"It is an issue we should probably shout loudly and clearly. It's an issue of civil liberties, it's an issue of how societies are run and as much a Liberal issue as a Conservative issue, if not more so."

But amid the plethora of ideas put forward by activists, one is mentioned repeatedly: tuition fees.

University funding

The coalition's decision to raise university fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year shredded Liberal Democrat support like no other compromise.

Despite the furore, David Hall-Matthews of Social Liberal Forum thinks the party can regain ground by reopening the issue.

"The whole idea was to create a market between universities with different prices for different courses and different places," he says.

"That hasn't happened and perhaps it might be time to look at an alternative funding model with a higher ratio of direct support from government."

Mr White adds: "The deal is unravelling to a degree and needs to be put back to where it should have been and then we need to think again about the longer term as to what is the value of higher education?"

He believes the moment for revisiting fees has already arisen but there is little desire in the leadership to go back to the issue.

Lorely Burt, the MP who chairs the Lib Dem backbench business, innovation and skills committee, acknowledges the party will need an internal reckoning on the issue before the next general election.

But she is wary of revisiting the government's policy.

"It's been a source of very great regret to us and by the next general election I'm sure we'll come out with another policy but I don't want to go there yet - my wounds are still healing on that one," she says.

But with key details about the new higher education scheme still to be agreed, including how places at universities are allocated, Ms Burt insists MPs' reticence on the issue does not mean the Liberal Democrats are bowing out of the debate altogether.

"We are very much looking forward to the White Paper. That is an area we'll be very keen to look at from a fairness and Liberal Democrat perspective," she says.

Those around Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg accept the need for a distinct Lib Dem agenda but insist they will not simply go looking to pick fights with the Conservatives.

But amid the euphoria of the NHS changes, it will be harder to convince the party's members that it is wise to pick and choose the issues over which they should square up to their Tory counterparts.

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