LibDemVoice is running a daily feature, ‘Lessons of Coalition’, to assess the major do’s and don’ts learned from our experience of the first 3 years in government. Reader contributions are welcome, either as comments or posts. The word limit is no more than 450 words, and please focus on just one lesson you think the party needs to learn. Simply email your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Today Alex Wilcock shares his thoughts.
The two biggest problems for any future coalition will be the breakdown of trust between the voters and the coalition parties, and the breakdown of trust between the coalition parties themselves. The Liberal Democrats have learned that all too well. We know the flashpoint issues for each that still say ‘bitterness’ and ‘betrayal’ to many: tuition fees and Lords reform. And we know we’ll have to find solutions to both problems if any future coalition is not to suffer the same poison.
Compromise or Betrayal?
Voters don’t trust parties to do what they promise. Most of all, they don’t trust us.
When we agreed to the Coalition in 2010 we all knew – and Vince said – that “It’s going to be bloody awful.” But it was the only option to get anything done, and we got a decent deal for government on paper. Unfortunately, that’s where the problems really start.
The Liberal Democrats constantly made clear what our priorities were before the 2010 Election, and three and a half of those four main priorities written on the front of our Manifesto were agreed for the LiberaTory Coalition. But instead of this being a big win after decades in the wilderness, we’re tarred as ‘sell-outs’. David Cameron protected himself by making his expensive but explicit promises cast-iron. Nick Clegg didn’t. We all know how that turned out.
If we can’t challenge the idea that any compromise is betrayal, no future coalition can work.
Agreements Are the Start, Not the End
Parties don’t trust each other to keep to their agreements. Most of all, we don’t trust either of the other two.
Both the letter and the spirit of the Coalition Agreement have slowly withered. The initial Agreement’s run out of steam while the party with the most ministers gets more day-to-day influence, but it’s more than that.
George Osborne’s anti-green agenda, Theresa May’s authoritarianism and Eric Pickles micro-managing every local council to his own bizarre prejudices are only the biggest examples of Tory Ministers simply chucking the LiberaTory Coalition’s founding principles in the bin. More openly, an increasing pack of hardcore Tory MPs are irreconcilable to the Coalition, to their own Leader, and to reality.
So what happens if the other party simply breaks the Coalition Agreement? The breaking point here was the Tory far right rebelling on Lords reform while Labour’s frenzied hatred destroyed their own principles to join them. It was a day that made it seem impossible for the Lib Dems to trust either party in 2015.
Is There Any Hope For A Future Coalition?
The Lib Dems can’t just hope for press, public or other parties to change their minds, though both Ed Miliband and David Cameron have begun to pull back from the abyss (one refusing the opportunity to bring down mostly-equal marriage, the other realising he’ll have to get his MPs to agree the next deal for them to stick to it). Neither is it enough for us to pose as the ‘middle’ with no big ideas of our own, a negative blandifying influence on the other two.
Here are three proposals for a start.
- To help define ourselves and our bottom lines that we won’t sell out, pick an enemy. Announce we would not enter any coalition of which UKIP is a part, and mean it. UKIP are our opposite: openness vs insularity; diversity vs bigotry; looking to the future vs complaining their way back to an imaginary 1950s.
- Make a small number of tightly focused, red-line expensive promises, but make money-saving more positive by promoting freedom as a principle and not wasting money on more security-state bullying.
- Any new Coalition Agreement needs sanctions if a party doesn’t stick to it. How about for every Parliamentary vote lost due to one side’s MPs, that side loses a Minister to the injured party? It might concentrate their minds on a better deal in the first place.
- Alex’s Love and Liberty blog will shortly publish a much more detailed version of this article.
Mark Valladares: Better party communications responding to the realities of governing
Gareth Epps: Government: What’s Occurrin?
Nick Thornsby: Making a success of coalition government as a concept
Caron Lindsay: That old “walk a mile in each others’ shoes” thing works
Louise Shaw: One member, one vote for all party elections
Robin McGhee: We should organise ministers better
Rob Parsons: Understand the mechanics of government
Richard Morris: Make the red lines deeper and wider
Bill le Breton: The Open Coalition and Its Enemies
Patrick Murray: Make sure our policies are reflected in our manifesto
David Allen: If It Won’t Work, Walk
Joe Otten: Government is hard
Richard Flowers: The Economy (it’s too soon to say)
Paul Walter: One doesn’t have to agree with everything the Government does to support it generally