Opinion: Time to take back the initiative

The hard part of coalition is over. As the result in Bradford shows, three things are now true. Our Conservative colleagues have finally overreached themselves. Labour is now known to be as ineffective as it really is. And there is a howling void of dissatisfaction where our support used to be. The country has changed since 2010, and we must move to capture the mood, or we are done. Key to this is winning the votes of students, the young, and the disenfranchised.

We have, however we colour it, had a hard time. Most of our policy ‘wins’, like the tax refund and pupil premium, are in many cases tempered by the impact of the cuts. Nick and the leadership chose a strategy of proving our ability to govern by prioritising the Coalition’s survival, holding our noses through tuition fees, the 50p rate reduction, the EU veto etc. We watched our credibility with our student base and our PR hopes melt away. Trading much of our dignity for stability is not the strategy I would have chosen, but I believe that it has done much of the job the leadership wanted it to do. The public will not write us off as incapable of governing anymore, but we now face the opposite risk. Coalition is pulling us so far into Cameron’s orbit that we are viewed as Tories-lite. We are becoming establishment hacks, and there is precious little respect left for that.

A professional, cohesive government was what the country needed. Now it needs turbulence. We can stop digging in with Cameron, and start fighting him loudly, and in public. We need to make radical demands, to be implemented as soon as possible. There is no point making it to 2015 if we look like any other Westminster party with a laundry list of achievements nobody cares about.

A good start would be publicly shooting down internet snooping, an issue that we have shown surprising restraint in so far. We must, absolutely must, win back the students: without their votes we can’t make a difference. Rebuilding trust on campuses will take time, but it can be done – a public apology, for the pledge if not the policy, will go a long way to sending the message that we are still open and honest with the public. A long-term solution for university funding, fees, and intake must be found. We must look into seriously revising drugs policy: decriminalisation is an idea whose time has come. Galloway has shown in Bradford that there is no stomach left for Afghanistan. I believe that we should seriously consider scrapping Trident after all, an incredible waste of money at a time like this.

Land Value Tax must get a hearing. We have to take green policy further, and with blueprints for decarbonising whole cities in a cost-effective way, we just need the political will to make that happen. The banks, as our manifesto says, must be broken up, and a half-hearted Osborne promise to do it next Parliament is not enough. We need to take some of the money out of London’s Zone 1, and take it to the country.

We’ve been in government like the consummate pros the public thought Lib Dems could never be, now it is time to be in government like the brilliant, radical amateurs they voted for. If the coalition cannot stand up to the stress of a more belligerent approach, then we can leave it. It has done its job. Winning skirmishes here and there isn’t enough anymore. Now is the time to be bold, or else irrelevant, and we must start by reconnecting with students.

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17 Comments

  • I applaud your optimism. I agree with your analysis of the past and of the risk for the future. Where we diverge is my belief that it is now too late for the actions you suggest to make enough of a difference by 2015, let alone by the start of next month when the next wave will break over us in local elections.

    We have so spectacularly betrayed the faith put into us by students that they will rightly be “once bitten, twice shy”. How would we prove our good faith to them? By signing a pledge??

    We have disaffected many of our traditional supporters – teachers and other public employees among them – by thinking coalition localism means what Liberal Democrats mean by localism (as opposed to Tory “small government”) and pushing through policies that attack their pensions and jobs.

    We have attacked the poor through punitive benefit changes in such a way that we are pushing those with “social democratic” principles further towards Labour.

    What Gorgeous George has just shown is that centralised party machines cannot operate effectively in changing terrain, yet our party has just released a batch of regional Local Election Manifestos that no one on the ground knew were coming, let alone had any input to.

    We have a huge amount of humble pie to eat before we might get trusted again. I fear I may not live to see it.

  • David Allen 6th Apr '12 - 12:09pm

    For once, somebody has managed to write a whole article without recourse to those deadly rose-tinted spectacles! This is a very welcome dose of realism.

    If we can’t adopt this agenda, or something like it – what are we there for?

    If we can’t reconnect with our natural supporters – what chance have we in 2015?

    But can our present leadership hack it?

  • Only one choice, if the party really, really wants to take the initiative…..cross the floor and call an end to this coalition. The electorate may, and I stress may, then start to reconnect with the party. Popularity is at an all time low, no one has any faith any longer and May will be an embaressment. Do not think Bradford is in any way indicative of how Labour is ‘ineffective’ as you say. George Galloway is an enigma. As far as respect go, had it been any other candidatye they would have lost their deposit.
    Your ‘policy wins’ as stated are merely the teaser given by the tories to keep the coalition in existance so they can plough on with their idealogical policies, robbing the poor to feed the rich…to watch it all unfold disgusts me beyond belief. As for the public apology to the students…it won’t wash, they have been lost now for more than one generation, as I beleive the rest of the electorate. I could go on, but the direction of the party leaves me so angry and as most of my posts don’t get past moderation it would appear we don’t want to face up to the truth !

  • Toby MacDonnellApr 06 – 12:17 pm……..(and why woudl liberals wants votes from people so out of step with the ideology?)……………….

    Would this be the ideology ‘pre’ or’ post’ 2010?

  • paul barker 6th Apr '12 - 2:42pm

    The one thing students, the young & the disenfranchised have in common is that few of them vote. A strategy based on the votes of people who dont , mostly vote seems odd to me.
    The local elections are in 4 weeks, I think our losses will be much less than last year, we will see then how rose-tinted my glasses are.

  • @George Porter: here, here.

  • Since the time of Mill, Green, Hobhouse and Hobson, Liberals have understood that individual liberty is only achievable with favourable social and economic circumstances. Freedom and individuality can only flourish in a social environment organised through collective action coordinated by a strong, welfare-oriented, and interventionist state.

    The neo-liberal ideology of the modern conservative party shares much with the laissez faire principles of classical liberalism. We moved on from those ideas when Lloyd George, established the foundations of the welfare state in the UK. Modern liberalism was cemented when the Attlee government adopted the full-employment economic policies of Keynes and Beveridge’s cradle to grave welfare state.

    The merger of the SDP and Liberal party to form the Liberal Democrats was a recognition that Modern or Social Liberalism and the mixed economy of ethical socialism shared much of the same values. We should never lose sight of where we have come from. We have entered coalition at a time of a national economic emergency. We must exit it with our heritage and principles intact. If that means turbulence in the cabinet and on the backbenches, then so be it.

  • George Potter. You have described the situation exactly. You are in contact with real voters. Well done!

  • John Carlisle 7th Apr '12 - 7:58am

    Sam, great article.
    To really differentiate ourselves we need to do at least two things:
    Publish a really new economic and business policy that differs radically from the Tories and current capitalism. It needs to focus on employment generation and “good” companies, embracing especially coops and employee ownership.
    Secondly, as we see the evidence of the inevitable damage to the NHS caused by implementing this insane bill we need to cry “hold” and do everything to stop it in its tracks. If this is the source of a split in the Coalition then so be it. At the polls the people will decide anyway, and they will remember our integrity.
    Finally, just on a tactical issue: can we please stop sweating the small stuff and just focus on the really important matters that concern ninety percent of the population. We make no headway with the voting public spending time on minority issues when they are battling with home economics, schooling, health and a feeling of generalised anxiety.

  • david partridge 7th Apr '12 - 9:19am

    I agree with George Potter on this one but I also think the response on the doorstep has changed from twelve months ago. Last year we encountered a pretty angry electorate who often said they couldn’t trust us any more. This year they seem much more sympathetic to the reasons we are in the coalition and understanding of our achievements, however not necessarily ready to vote for us again. I expect this year’s district results will be less damaging than last year’s.
    Now the electorate are listening again it is up to us to re-engage them with the issues that would make a ‘more liberal country and society’. We must be better placed than we were in 2007 when we had no achievements in power to demonstrate what we are about.
    We have the next three years to convince the electorate of all the positive things we can offer in government. The past is another country, let’s stop going there!

  • John Carlisle 7th Apr '12 - 12:36pm

    Toby, who said anything about forcing? What we lack is s model, based on evidence, of what a good organisation looks like and does in both the private and public sectors. We do not have a business policy because we do not really understand micro-economics, so we get dragged along on the coattails of the Tories, saying foolish things like “bonuses are too high” etc., instead of saying that bonuse are a bad thing in any organisation.
    We make a stand on things that really do not matter to the majority of voters (sweating the small stuff) intead of going public with policy statements defining a good workplace, where 24 million people spend 40 hours a week, many of them unhappily. We criticise high pay but offer nothing that can replace the thinking that determines it. We let the CBI get away with some truly offensive proclamations because do not know enough about business to challenge its DG. And yet we have the most powerful platform to do it from, and one of the most respected politicians to do it for us, BIS and Vince Cable.
    That is what I mean

  • Geoffrey Payne 7th Apr '12 - 1:59pm

    I wonder if the hard part is over. The economy has under performed compared to the OBR predictions, deficit elimination is now scheduled to complete AFTER the next general election (so where does that leave our much cherished “equidistance” between Labour and the Tories?), and there are still cuts in public spending yet to be implemented, which in itself will reduce growth with the knock on effect of making deficit reduction even harder.
    On top of all that there is the issue of when Israel will attack Iran. Our manifesto was opposed to the UK suporting this policy, but the Tories are likely to support it. So what will Nick Clegg do? The decision he makes could be the hardest he has ever had to make.

  • Peter Watson 7th Apr '12 - 9:05pm

    @Geoffrey
    Unfortunately I don’t think that abandoning a manifesto commitment is a hard decision for Nick.

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