Why the Lib Dems cannot end the Coalition. And what we should do to try and rescue it.

How do we revitalise the Coalition? I realise that for many Lib Dems that’s the very last question on your minds. After a week in which Tory rebel MPs forced the Government to delay a key plank of the Coalition Agreement — House of Lords reform — rather more Lib Dems, and not just the ‘usual suspects’, are turning to the question: how quickly can we be shot of the Tories?

After all, didn’t enough of our MPs walk the plank on the Coalition’s behalf on tuition fees, a policy directly counter to the Lib Dem manifesto? Meanwhile David Cameron cannot even persuade his party to back a reform that’s featured in the last three Tory manifestos. So what’s the purpose of the Coalition any more?

I get the emotional pull of the argument… but it doesn’t persuade me.

Coalition matters more to the Lib Dems than the Tories

The simple truth is that it’s more important for the Lib Dems to try and make this coalition work than it is for the Tories. If we pull the plug, we’ll be free of them, that’s true. Yet do we honestly expect the voters to show gratitude to us for saying ‘Sorry, we made a horrible mistake. Our bad. But we’ve learned our lesson. Please lend us your vote, and rest assured we’ll never make the mistake of being a junior party in government again’?

With the prospect of electoral reform at Westminster likely to remain dormant for a generation, the reality is that the Lib Dems are reliant now on being able to show coalition government can work, that it can be an effective way to run the country.

At the moment, electoral arithmetic allows only a stable coalition with the Tories. After the next election, it may be that only a stable coalition with Labour will fly.

The point now is to prove that pluralist politics delivering energetic, centrist reform is possible even within a first-past-the-vote system.

If the Lib Dems cannot show that, or at least try our level best to show that, then voters will either switch back to Labour/Tories in the hope of a more united, less sclerotic government, or they will just switch instead to minority parties (or abstention) to show their disdain for us all. There would be no quick bounce-back if we walked away from governing now.

You want out of the Coalition? Tough luck

Fine, you may say. But — and I hope I’m not paraphrasing you too much — we’ve tried all that ‘making the Coalition work’ stuff, and look at what’s happened. Have you seen the polls? The reality is the Lib Dems are heading for self-immolation in 2015, if not sooner. How the hell are we going to get ourselves out of this fix without walking away?

Well, you’ve asked a legitimate question. But I’m going to give you an answer you won’t like: tough. Tough because that’s just the way it is. Tough because the only option is to stick it out and make it work. And tough because even if it doesn’t work the alternatives are at least as bad.

Let me be clear what I mean by ‘at least as bad’: whatever kudos Lib Dems would gain (at least among ourselves) for chucking the coalition we would lose in spades as voters glanced at us and concluded, quite rationally, that Lib Dems may be a nice enough bunch who work hard in our local patches, but we’re just not serious about getting our hands dirty in national government.

Nor do I buy the idea that moving to ‘supply-and-confidence’ — propping up the Tories outside of government — is the easy get-out-of-jail card some like to style it. Responsibility without power seems to me to be the worst possible option for any political party to choose, a guaranteed way of continuing to annoy those people who dislike any deal with the Tories while repudiating those still sympathetic to the Coalition. The inevitable result would be scrappy, piecemeal never-ending negotiations. The Lib Dems would be reduced to the status of insignificant pawns on a chess-board existing only to keep the two main armies apart, and cheaply sacrificed when we get in the way.

We sealed the deal in May 2010: for better or worse. Whatever regrets we may have now, however much some might wish we could turn the clock back, we made our choice.

Let me put it at its bluntest: there is still no alternative to the Coalition. Not great words of comfort, I agree. But it’s the reality, and acceptance is supposed to be the first step to recovery.

So what’s next? Is there any way back for the Coalition?

However gloomy the party’s current position seems now, the fact still remains that the Lib Dems have a further three years in government to make a difference.

We can, I guess, spend that entire period cavilling at the ‘evil Tories’ if it makes us feel better. But it might be a little more productive instead to push for some real liberal reforms to revitalise the Coalition. Reforms which wouldn’t be pushed simply to differentiate us from the Conservatives in the vain hope the public will notice We’re Not Like Them At All, but reforms where we may actually be able to reach agreement with enough Tories so that they do happen.

I’ve argued for months now that the Coalition needs a reboot (in April here and in May here). A Coalition Agreement written in a fortnight two years ago was never going to stick for a full-term parliament.

What reforms could unite the Coalition? I thought about devising a list of individual policies such as Tim Montgomerie proposed on ConservativeHome this week. But I just cannot see such a transactional arrangement enthusing activists in either party. Indeed, ‘loss aversion’ would probably bring us back full-bad-tempered-circle to the beginning, leaving us with nothing other than a crossed-out list of random pet projects after months of bitter wrangling. As for the wider public, I think they would regard such horse-trading as self-indulgent.

No, if the Coalition is going to reboot it has to get behind an attention-grabbing big idea which unites enough of both sides to generate real momentum. So here’s my pitch…

Reform capitalism and make it work for the majority of the people

The Coalition’s focus should be on the economy, both because it is the number one issue for the public, and because it is somewhat ironically the issue on which there has been least serious disagreement between the Lib Dems and Conservatives. Compared to tuition fees or the NHS or Lords reform, deficit reduction has been a relatively smooth Coalition ride.

The LIBOR rate-rigging scandal should be the cue for the Coalition to go further on banking reform, as Vince Cable has long pushed and as Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom (the star turn of the Treasury Select Committee) has also urged, calling on George Osborne ‘to move further and faster’. As I noted here, when making her my CentreForum ‘Liberal Hero of the Week’, she proposes ‘parcelling up and selling on the currently state-owned banks into a number of smaller ones to create greater plurality in the system, introducing instantly portable bank accounts to help consumers change banks as quickly and easily as we do with our mobile phone providers, and a complete separation of retail and investment banking.’ Music to most Lib Dems’ ears.

But there is a wider reform agenda here which the Coalition could assert. Though Ed Miliband’s autumn 2011 Labour conference speech contrasting ‘responsible capitalism’ with ‘predatory capitalism’ was pretty vacuous in content, he had a point. Let me repeat that: Ed Miliband had a point. And it doesn’t make you a crypto-socialist to admit it.

Indeed a year ago, arch-Tory Charles Moore caused a bit of a stir in the Telegraph by confessing to asking himself “if what the Right calls ‘the free market’ is actually a set-up”. Another Conservative voice, Tim Morgan, writing in the Spectator last month, argued the Government should:

… [reform] our capitalist system so that it serves everyone, not just a privileged minority. Capitalism should reward success, not failure. It should benefit shareholders (which means most people), not just executives. Contracts should be entered into freely by parties bargaining from roughly equal positions. This does not describe the current system, which is a bastardised version of capitalism. The aim of reform should be to bring ‘capitalism-in-practice’ back into line with ‘capitalism-in-principle’. Rewards for failure need to be stamped out. Executives must not prosper when shareholders suffer. Bonuses should be held in rolling accounts so that deductions can be made if performance deteriorates.

No, those aren’t the words of Vince Cable or Lord (Matthew) Oakeshott, but they could very easily have been. This should be the kind of radical and popular agenda around which a truly reforming Coalition Government of Lib Dems and Conservatives could unite: liberal reforms to create a more competitive and much, much fairer economy.

Is it realistic? Maybe, just maybe. Though there are many in the Conservative party — for instance, George Osborne and Boris Johnson — who appear to identify perfectly functioning capitalism with What The City Does, there are others prepared to think more critically about the current crisis. My urgent hope is the Lib Dems can find common cause with such Conservatives and press for the big reforms our economy needs, and which have the potential both to rescue this Coalition’s record, and also to offer the Lib Dems a chance to achieve positive change within Government.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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65 Comments

  • Joshua Dixon 15th Jul '12 - 9:06am

    The worry is that if we did go down the route of reforming capitalism we’d have to be serious about it. No meaningless slight changes, no more empty rhetoric but real action. The banks should be the first we clear up but I think we’re deluded to think the Tories will do anything about this.

    But I really do hope I’m proved wrong!

  • jenny barnes 15th Jul '12 - 9:14am

    The current notion of capitalism looks more like highway robbery than anything ethical to me. The financial/capitalist crisis we’re in at the moment is probably part of world hegemony passing from the “west” to China/ SE Asia. I have yet to see any plausible deep economic/ political thinking from anyone in the coalition – Vince has been disappointing, although he would obviously make a far better chancellor than Osborne. Why should I care about rescuing the coalition or the Lib Dems? The parliamentary party seems to be busy implementing tory policies to enrich the rich, with a few crumbs for the poor, but mostly taking things away from the poor to make the rich richer.
    Reforming capitalism – it has to be controlled, and stopped from dumping it’s exernalities – and that won’t happen while capital is globally mobile while regulation and labour is fixed to individual states.

  • Lots in here that I agree with, as a strong supporter of the coalition thus far. But in the course of the summer I suggest the party needs to conduct a fuller, hard-headed strategic assessment of whether continuing on regardless until 2015 is the ‘least worst’ option, come what may. Things have surely changed when Cameron cannot deliver half of his backbenchers in support of a reform which was included in the Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement and was always understood to be a key ask for the Lib Dems.

    Given the opinion polls and the Fixed Term Parliament Act, there is a real option available for the next year or so of withdrawing from the coalition without triggering an immediate general election. That deserves proper analysis, not least because it increases the pressure on Cameron to sort something out on Lords reform. While I agree that a confidence and supply arrangement has its downsides – renewed challenge about why we participated in the first place, alongside attacks about why we would continue to selectively support other Tory initiatives from the outside – we are hardly immune from criticism at the moment. On the other hand, it would be much easier to define our distinctive agenda, and to make clear that we work with Tories only when it was in the country’s interest, particularly in delivering deficit reduction. Meanwhile, Cameron left to deal with the Tory right on his own, would find the going even tougher.

    It would all depend on whether the reason for walking had popular resonance – and Lords reform clearly doesn’t pass that test. But we must be clear what we want and don’t want from this coalition, and if we don’t get it, be willing to bring it to an end. In the context of a weak economy, continued pressure on the deficit, and excess in the boardroom, couldn’t we reopen the issue of whether the 50p rate should be reduced next year, for example? Or perhaps we should advance and insist on more radical ideas for growth, such as massive investment in social housing . None of this is simple or easy, but it is far too early in this Parliament to accept the coalition is going to become a zero sum game (we lose Lords reform, they lose boundaries and all the radical stuff is on hold). If we act as if we are stuck with no alternative, that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    To make clear, I have not yet concluded that leaving the coalition is the right thing to do, but I am not yet ready to dismiss it so quickly either. Let the debate continue, until Cameron come back on Lords reform at least.

    James King
    Vice Chair, Camden Lib Dems
    @jamesrobking

  • So we’re in coalition and, no matter what, we’re stuck with it?
    That says much about our vision for our future as a party.

  • @Stephen Tall: I am one of those who is much more skeptical about the Coalition now than I was, even six months ago. But I have to agree with your chastising article in large parts. Particularly, I think the Lib Dems should be arguing for reforming capitalism. However, it should be said that Clegg’s speeches on mutualisation and the ‘John Lewis’ economy didn’t resonate with the public at all either. So, while it might address a key problem facing the public, not confident the electorate would recognise the fact that we are improving their lot.

  • jenny barnes 15th Jul '12 - 10:42am

    from open democracy.net
    http://www.opendemocracy.net/albena-azmanova/on-social-destitution-misdirected-protest-and-missing-crisis-of-capitalism
    Quote
    When the risk accumulated by financial institutions exploded, public authorities opted for avoiding an economic crisis triggered by bank collapse in the style of the early 1930s, and undertook a publicly funded bank bailout. The recapitalization of financial institutions with public money, while the ownership of these institutions in most cases remained in private hands, amounted to allocation of investment risk to society while the opportunities for returns on investment remained in the hands of bank managers and bank shareholders. It is this squandering of public funds that is now triggering a social crisis as governments are cutting down essential social services (especially funds for health and education) in order to restore balance to government finances. This is how the governments of the most mature democracies known in history so far (in Europe and North America) have turned the financial crisis into a social crisis.
    Unquote

  • “Coalition matters more to the Lib Dems than the Tories”

    This reminds me of an illustration one of my colleagues used to give of the different between involvement and commitment – when you have bacon and eggs for breakfast, the hen is involved, but the pig is committed!

  • Richard Dean 15th Jul '12 - 10:54am

    It is always important to retain one’s freedom, if only to be able to think (thinking is important becasuse that’s how problems are solved). And it is certainly important to avoid becoming dependent on a future adversary.

    Ending a coalition does not automatically imply that the coalition was a mistake – one could argue that the coalition was the right way forward for the country previously, but is not the right way forward now.

    Ending it credibly might require something more – perhaps a vision of how the next three years could and should unfold. As well as being argued as the right way forward, it would need to really be the right way forward.

  • I agree with almost everthing in this article except for the assertion that electoral reform is off the agenda for ” a generation”. Currently an average generation is 28 years, that takes us back to 1984. How many people in 1984 made succsessful predictions about politics in 2012 ?
    My guess is that electoral reform is off the agenda for 2 years, at least thats a prediction that can be tested in my lifetime, I doubt I will be around in 2040, a generation from now.
    Even predicting the full result in 2015 is hard enough, we can see the tories & labour both heading away from the centre, why are we so sure that we will be the ones to suffer in 3 years ?

  • As someone who strongly supports the idea of coalition, but who has always rejected the central purpose (self-declared) of this coalition, I think the word that undermines Stephen Tall (and similar Lib Dems’) analysis, is “centrist”. The mainstream of our party, and certainly the radicals, have not been “centrist” over the years, and you can see that tendency emerging very strongly at present. Our weakness has been our inability over the years to think deeply about the economics of a liberal / Lib Dem society, and come to some consensus or conclusion. That has allowed a coalition predicated on a right wing view of economics to take root.

    Of course Stephen is right to talk of a capitalism which should serve all, but we have entered a coalition with opposite views on that (which is why I have supported the idea that a Tory – Labour agreement was better than a Tory – Lib Dem coalition). We were BOUND to reach this point sometime, the reading of this party (and perhaps the Tory party also) by our coalition negotiators being profoundly flawed. They had earlier made the point that they wanted to drive certain factions out of the party, and have had some success with that. They have few others to replace them with. They have given Labour the opportunity to pick themselves off the floor, and the Greens a chance to avoid their own profound organisational and political challenges by bequeathing them a small number of extra campaigners.

    Where do we go from here? I agree with Stephen that there are no pain-free alternatives. Leaving the coalition right now would be a tough choice. There does, at some point, I am afraid, have to be an admission that the wrong assumptions were made, the wrong choices taken. I don’t think we can do that in coalition with the Tories. In essence, it is not coalitio with Tories which is wrong, and such a turn-off for many of our former supporters, but the fact that apparently a large part of our leadership has accepted policy and philosophical ideas that have not been previously a part of our principles.

    That, Stephen, is why the term “centrist” is so dangerous, and possibly fatal to the Lib Dems. Our role in British political life has grown because people see us as something different, not because we accept the economic and political assumptions others do. We cannot and will not as a country, move to a better capitalism in tandem with the current crop of conservatives – we might (just about) have done in 1974 if Thorpe had accepted Ted Heath’s entreaties, but not now. Until their party explicitly rejects key tenets of Thatcherism, a real working relationship between mainstream Lib Dems and Tories will not work satisfactorily.

  • Elizabeth Patterson 15th Jul '12 - 11:32am

    Stephen:
    After reading the political press this morning with their general theme of “How to bury the Coalition, not to praise it”
    I found your article very soothing..
    Last week I wanted to switch to Confidence and Supply, but soon began to realize it was partly at least the MANNERS of these tory rebels that made me want to get away from them. As Andrew Rawnsley points out today, we have politely held our noses about some of their stuff; our MPs have not jeered and sneered as the the tory backbenchers did behind Nick’s back last week. Thank goodness we have no Nadine Dorris, and good that our MPs can behave so well when they must be so stressed by some of the tory legislation.

    I think you are right that the economy could be a healing factor; I have not been able to understand why the Vickers proposals cannot come in earlier than at present planned; or why Vince has not been able to make early progress on his stated views on bank size and the return of Mutuals. Is it his boss GO that is the obstacle? I look forward to Vince’s speech at Conference when I hope he will discuss these things.

  • So the way to save the coalition is to adopt Ed Miliband’s agenda? Oh dear, think I’ll have to lie down, I’m having an irony overload.

  • Bill le Breton 15th Jul '12 - 1:17pm

    The Party has lost it way. That is, it has lost its connection with most of the public that once felt it was represented in their communities by Liberal Democrat campaigners and in councils and parliaments by the Liberal Democrats those communities elected.

    With our ‘all-year-round action and service’ we did more than we talked. Now those people think we talk more than we do, and they don’t much care for what we talk about.

    I wrote about how the Party grew by practicing the three Cs of concentrating, communicating and campaigning here http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-why-a-referendum-on-second-chamber-reform-would-be-good-for-the-party-29395.html

    Coalition could and should have been an ideal chance to take that approach up a gear. Communicating with the electorate, LISTENING, and then involving them in campaigns which, because of our access to power (through negotiation), could lead to action.

    As Tip O’Neil famously said, “All politics is local”. That is what our leaders have forgotten. THat is why the Party is so troubled.

    Involving people and involving grassroots campaigners is not just strategically important in the way described above, it is tactically important in a Coalition because it always strengthens the hands of our negotiators.

    The Party has virtually stopped campaigning and, where it is campaigning, it is not doing so in an integrated fashion with our Government ministers.

    Elizabeth mentions Vickers. We could and should have consulted in our communities about what they wanted to happen to banks when Vickers reported. We could and should have garnered support for full and speedy implementation of his recommendations. That could have begun a year ago.

    We didn’t and our Government allowed the banks some slack and their lobbyists the chance to push us back further. We have wasted a great chance to side with communities up and down the country on something they felt strongly about. What a position we would be in now when again bank bosses are failing us all.

    The answer is to fix the party before fixing the Coalition. You can’t do it the other way round. By fixing the Party through campaigns fought locally in our streets and nationally at Westminster, you ensure that what we are trying to deliver in Coalition has the support of both the public and the activists. That’s why it will also be right for the country.

  • We disagree on that, Simon (centrism), and I suspect quite a number of other things!

  • Simon Hebditch 15th Jul '12 - 2:30pm

    I agree with Stephen Tall to the extent that the Lib Dems are now in a hopeless position. If we stay in the Coalition then we will suffer the consequences at the general election as part and parcel of the Coalition. We cannot differentiate between ourselves and the Tories in relation to parts of the government programme. The electorate will simply see us as jointly responsible for the government programme – which we are.

    I accept that it would be difficult to leave the Coalition unless there was a major, economically based collapse of the programme between the two parties. We would simply earn renewed contempt because we had deserted the sinking ship! We probably have to soldier on in the full knowledge that we will be down to 10 or so MPs in the next Parliament and will have the pleasure or otherwise of looking back on the disaster which was the coalition government of 2010/15.

  • Richard Dawson 15th Jul '12 - 2:42pm

    Spot on agree with every word !!

    We need to focus on the economy ,jobs and growth all else is secondary thats what the electorate care about . All this time and energy on differentiation what a waste we are lashed to the Tories and they to us till 2015 anyway.

    Tories don’t relent on HOL then no boundary review and equalisation of constituencies but lets not be derailed from the real priorities.

  • Charles Beaumont 15th Jul '12 - 3:17pm

    Very good post. Ultimately the “we have little choice” arguments resound strongest. But there is potential for radical reform of economics. I’m struck that there are two types of Tory views on economics: those who like the status quo (and stand to gain from it. I. E. Osborne and Boris). And there are those that recognise that capitalism as currently constructed doesn’t allow the benefits of the free market to flourish. Andrea Leadsom is one of these. Steve Baker is another. Let’s work with these people to change the rules of capitalism.

  • FedUpofCeredigion 15th Jul '12 - 3:26pm

    @Geoffrey Payne.

    A genuine question – and one, I suspect, many ex Lib Dem voters would like a convincing answer to before they’ll consider voting Lib Dem again:

    Why is/was the Coalition agreement with the Tories considered sacrosanct, but the Lib Dem 2010 campaign promises to voters considered disposable ?

  • Lots of what we should do’s here.

    Here’s a thought….We will continue tied to the ‘Tory Tiger’ into the next election….10 seats anyone?

  • Leave the coalition!You have chased off half of our vote ,most have gone to Labour .Why can Clegg not just walk and resign give the leadership to Vince Cable.Apologise for jumping in the sack with the Tories.Just do it now while there is time to rebuild for 2020.If we stay in this coalition were going to get screwed by the Conservatives were already despised by the electorate at least get some credit for walking out ,and bringing this sorry mess of a government down.

  • The reality is that the coalition was set up ensure economic recovery and it hasn’t achieved this. Unless there is a major rethink of the economic approach, then there seems to be little chance of there ever being a recovery. . Also as the Party loses it’s support from it’s own voters,, it then becomes less able to influence economic thought and less necessary to it’s coalition partner..
    I would argue that the coalition hasn’t been good for the Lib Dems and it hasn’t really been good for the country either. The point is that the Tories are already lowering the lifeboats.
    And as far as I know bailing from a sinking ship is more likely to result in survival than staying on board to play the violin as you go under the waves.

  • Constantly the focus is on 2015 and the problems that may happen then. Sorry, but the problems started in the 2011 elections.

    People need to remember that Westminster is not the only place where Lib Dems can have power and can influence people’s lives. The alternative to being in coalition and making it work is not a political wilderness. it is a focus on localism – local politics, carried out in local authorities with the backing of local people. Not compromised politics, tied to an unwillingly bedfellow.

    But this government are doing their best to ensure there will be little or no local services left to shape…

  • Tony Dawson 15th Jul '12 - 6:28pm

    A Coalition was vital. The coalition we ended up with was diabolical. I still voted for it because I believed then, as I believe now, that more-than-half-right policies on saving the economy made more sense than capitulating to more-than-half wrong ones.

    The present House of Lords reform debacle, and the AV and NHS ‘reform’(sic) fiascos before it show the ludicrous nature of having a horse-trading coalition as opposed to a ‘common denominator’ coalition. The one we ended up with was very much a ‘top down’ affair. What we need is a minimalist Coalition which we can agree from the grass roots up. I actually think Stephen’s template has a lot of use in that regard. We do, however, need to take a lead in setting this agenda because the elephant in the room is that three out of four of the parliamentary seats which we might hope to win in 2015 is against the Conservatives with the need to squeeze a reasonable proportion of the Labour vote to win them, even in a good year. Just having ‘a better coalition’ to come out of in 2015 is not, in itself, going to help us win those seats at all.

  • Something to note: while Coalition means more to the Lib Dems than it does to the Tories. Coalition means as much to Cameron, as it does to us.

  • Whilst I agree with Adrian Sanders that the Tories do not have a preamble to their constitution as to its values and principles, I believe that they are guided by a far stronger motive and that has been to preserve wealth and privilege. They disguise the fact very cleverly for much of the time but it underpins their thinking at all times.

    When a problem like Barclays/Libor comes around they are smart enough to make all the right noises but ultimately they will do nothing to fundamentally change the status quo. They are excellent at at – bear in mind that going into the 21st Century this country had a second chamber that was composed almost entirely of hereditary Tory peers (any other democracy would have got rid of it a century before).

    All I see is an economic system that appears to increasingly operate for the benefit of the super-rich while the living standards of the remainder of society steadily decline. I don’t know what the answer is but I am certain of one thing – a Conservative government will not even be looking for it!

  • Historically the Tory Party was broadly socially conservative and economically liberal, whereas the Labour Party tended to be socially liberal and economically corporatist. However, because of our electoral system, most ambitious politicians were forced to compromise their individual opinions to achieve elected office, which is why we speak of parties being broad coalitions. While social and economic libertarians within the Tory Party, such as Nick Herbert – once considered a relatively unimportant grouping – have started to strengthen their position, David Laws has rejected the suggestion that he is a closet Tory and instead described himself as both a social and economic liberal. It is still not clear where the Labour Party is heading, particularly bearing in mind its financial dependence on public sector trade unions, but I start to wonder whether many Liberal Democrats and former Liberal Democrats who now criticise the Coalition in reality had no clear political philosophy, other than an intense dislike for local Labour politicians, and a general disdain for the Tory Party. Until we define what the Liberal Democrats fundamentally represent, it will be impossible to resolve the conflicts surrounding the Coalition.

  • Tony Dawson 15th Jul '12 - 8:06pm

    @jedibeeftrix

    “i thought lib-dems lived for PR style coalition politics?”

    Lib Dems stand for competent PR-style coalition politics. Such competence, as achieved in countless councils up and down the land, does not have to include much horse trading. And most Lib Dems I know have no aversion whatsoever to achieving a majority mandate! :-)

  • Reforming capitalism is a very good agenda to have. The Coalition should look to the philosophy of DIstributism created by Hilaire Belloc (once a Liberal MP) and GK Chesterton. The basic idea is that to secure an economy that is both economically efficient and socially just, you need to extend ownership of property/ capital to as many people as possible – this could be homes or businesses. It would mean more employee ownership of firms (like Nick Clegg’s recent speech on building a John Lewis economy), more co-operatives, credit unions, small businesses and much more strongly enforced competition laws to break up big businesses and big banks.

  • Perhaps worth noting that Anthony Wells reports Nick Clegg’s worst ever approval rating from YouGov: -59.

    Those looking for a silver lining can console themselves with the fact that it’s “not quite the worst YouGov have had for any leader, Gordon Brown did get worse a couple of times.”

    http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/5817

  • James King above says: “It would all depend on whether the reason for walking had popular resonance – and Lords reform clearly doesn’t pass that test.”

    One interesting argument coming up relates to the Comprehensive Spending Review – where I’ve been seeing some reasonable suggestions being made in the press that Cameron/Osborne and Clegg/Alexander are simply unable to come to agreement – and that the decision on CSR may end up being put on hold until 2014. The main sticking point is apparently welfare cuts.

    A Comprehensive Spending Review is altogether more plausible and worthwhile excuse for walking away from a coalition if the Conservatives – if the only other option is to sign up to all kind of nasty things that give Daily Mail readers a hot flush but horrify us Lib Dems, like Cameron’s recent idea of abolishing housing benefit altogether for under-25s (the age group with the highest chance of redundancy and the highest levels of unemployment).

    If we’re looking for an exit strategy, an argument over the CSR – which could include a whole package of rows and disagreements – looks the most plausible way to justify our move to “confidence and supply” (or snap general election).

  • It would be madness to end the Coalition over Lords reform, and I agree with those who say there is no easy way out. However the government is due to have another and perhaps more difficult spending review before the election. Thre have been rumours in Whitehall for months of the review being brought forward from 2014 to 2013, but no sections. In the mean time the 2 parties are publicly split on further welfare cuts. If a government can’t conclude a sounding review then ite can’t continue to govern. Particularly this one that has made such a fetish of deficit reduction. This may then force the ending of the Coalition. If so, I would expect the Tories to use the Europe issue to actually trigger the split so they could force an election on an issue they believe would boost their standing with the electorate, emphasise the excuse for lack of progress on the economy, and paint us into the pro Euro Corner. If we aren’t going to deliver boundary changes then, why should they hang on…..?

  • There is no doubt in my mind that the break up has to come over financial/economic/all-in-this-together issues, probably linked with green investment/preparations etc. And it needs to be initiated by Lib Dems, with a proper well prepared and believable explanation to the public. This should, of course, include an acknowledgment that economic policies have proved wrong up till now.

  • Whatever we do, and our reasons for doing it, it will be the version according to our opponents that will be embedded in the minds of the voter by the ‘ever-helpful’ press and media… we need to remember that before we decide on any course of action.
    With voting reform and parliamentary reform (and Leveson sorting out the media), we were supposed to become the government in waiting… what would really help is for one or two ‘Liberal Conservatives’ to defect to us during the next year…

  • Shame on you all for being so negative. The coalition has brought successes as well as disasters. Our real weakness is a woolly vision for the future. If I am asked “now that the agenda of the coalition agreement is close to completion, what are your plans for the future ?” I cannot think of anything consequential. Let’s pretend that Lib-dems win a landslide victory in 2015 and ask what would be in the Queen’s speech: if our leadership via Conference can come with an agenda that meets the four criteria of being popular, responsible, imaginative and practical, I would expect that the saying that the public have short memories will again prove true and we will be back in Westminster with more rather than fewer M.Ps

  • @ Peter

    I think it far more likely that Clegg & Laws defect to the Tories at some point in the future, the Hughes-Farron-Kennedy wing of the party will reassert itself, there will be some sort of split & they will join the Tories (Provided that Cameron is still leader). I think this has been Cameron’s long term strategy. It may come to nought if the Tories ditch Cameron and opt for a more right wing leader. was to

  • It’s all ‘grassroots’ speculation. I’d ask one question, “What would make our leaders openly say ‘No’! in this coalition?”

    If there is nothing (as appears likely) we will ‘drift’ into 2015 with almost no difference in the minds of anyone outside the party.

  • There are two coalitions at stake here:

    1. The parliamentary coalition between the LibDems and the Conservatives.
    2. The coalition of centre – left social liberals and centre – right economic liberals that is the LibDem party (with the parliamentary party being largely in the centre – right camp).

    If the parliamentary coalition survives until 2015, I think the result will be a split in the LD party.

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Jul '12 - 12:22pm

    “If, for example, the Tories failed to back us on a popular coalition agreement policy,”

    Quite genuinely, without any snark or rhetorical effect intended, I ask: Can you name a popular coalition agreement policy that the Tories might not agree with?

  • Simon Hebditch 16th Jul '12 - 3:21pm

    The comprehensive spending review will be crucial. It can either be delayed till after the election or brought forward a year. If it is coming forward, you would expect departments to be developing their draft plans this autumn. For Lib Dems the important issue is whether we are expected to sign up to an economic programme now which goes beyond 2015. If that happens, and a further period of cuts and austerity is planned, with Lib Dem support, then that is the point where the Lib Dems will split. Simple as that.

  • Helen Tedcastle 16th Jul '12 - 10:06pm

    @Stephen Tall: ‘The point now is to prove that pluralist politics delivering energetic, centrist reform is possible even within a first-past-the-vote system.

    I do not believe that the point to prove is that coalitions deliver centrist policies. This is not a vision that will get activists up in the morning, enthusiastic to deliver leaflets and knock on doors!

    A centrist position pleases neither moderate right nor left of centre . Essentially, it is a pragmatic and managerial position, governing form the centre in both word and deed.

    Blair tried it. It failed. Allied with laissez-faire economics, it’s a dangerous mix of top down control freakery and ‘leave it to the market’ service delivery.

    If the Liberal Democrats become a Centrist party due to perpetual coalition, then someone will have to go and re- establish the (social) Liberal Party.

    I for one, believe that the coalition will only succeed if the Coalition Agreement is adhered to in good faith.

    Unfortunately, on top-down NHS ‘reforms,’ the English Baccalaureate and forced academies, notwithstanding the determination of Cameron and Osborne to scupper the AV referendum; the coalition agreement has been long ignored in spirit and letter.

    Only if the Tories stick to their side of the bargain on Lords reform and stick rigidly to the CA, without inventing new policies, can this arrangement be made to stick until 2015.

  • The Lib Dems cannot run as the party in government, regardless of whether the economy recovers or not. Running as a 2nd coalition partner is a sure path to doom; and it’s previously brought down the Liberal Party twice: once in 1918, where even though the Coalition Liberals held the Prime Ministry, the election benefited the Conservatives and not the Liberals; and again in 1931, as part of the National Government under Ramsay McDonald. In both cases, the coalition caused the Liberals to split.
    Who actually gained from being in a Coalition government, at the expense of the senior partner? Labour in 1945, who successfully took credit for the positive developments of the wartime coalition, while avoiding much of the blame. How did they do this? By making sure that they were no longer in government by the time of the election, so that they could fight it as an opposition. And if the Lib Dems want to avoid a disastrous split in 2015, they’ll need to be out of government as well. The end of 2014 or early 2015 would be an opportune time to depart; with only a few months left before the election, it’s unlikely that the Conservatives will be able to do too much damage on their own, and there would be no question of a confidence vote with the election on the horizon.

  • @Helen Tedcastle
    You know, it took a fair amount of guts for Stephen to write this article, especially when using the word “tough” as he did. However, I wish he’d also done a couple of paragraphs on “get over it”, especially on things like ” top-down NHS ‘reforms,’” (although I realise that may have been a bit to kamikaze for an LDP Members site).

    Both of the Parties in the coalition had plans for top down reform of the NHS, both Parties need to share the blame for being stupid enough to put that phrase in the CA. Get over it, it was always going to be a time bomb – move on.

    “the coalition agreement has been long ignored in spirit and letter.”
    And guess what, they say exactly the same thing about you folks. People have never liked parties that squabble all the time, I don’t suppose they’ll like it if the 2 parties in Gov expend vast amounts of energy on squabbles instead of sorting out the Country.

  • …………………………….However, I wish he’d also done a couple of paragraphs on “get over it”, especially on things like ” top-down NHS ‘reforms,’”………………

    A great LibDem election pledge to the country,”NHS reorganisation…..Get over it”, “Disability cuts…Get over it”
    The list goes on…

    Let us hope and pray that the electorate suffer mass amnesia and that Labour forgets to use any of this in their election programme.

  • @Jason
    The point is that you don’t need to keep beating yourself up over it, your political opponents are more than happy enough to beat you about the head with those things. Of course, it is up to you if you continually run around moaning “x happened, oh no we’re doomed”, but have you ever heard the term self-fulfilling prophecy?

    Instead, you could try a bit of political management to either counter/divert what the negatives, as an example on tuition fees:

    Lab: “Look at those nasty lib dems, they lied about tuition fees.”
    LDP: “We made a mistake, however it’s a crazy world when the Labour Party are berating us because we fulfilled one of their manifesto commitments.”

  • …………………………Of course, it is up to you if you continually run around moaning “x happened, oh no we’re doomed”, but have you ever heard the term self-fulfilling prophecy?…………….

    Possibly!
    However, I’d love to hear any one of our leadership say,“We made a mistake”. Perhaps then we could move on.
    As for, “have you ever heard the term self-fulfilling prophecy?…………….have you ever heard of the “Ostrich”.

  • Helen Tedcastle 17th Jul '12 - 7:01pm

    @Dane Clouston: ‘Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home quoted Stephen Hall on this on Newsnight with him and Evan Harris last night. Please see again my post above.’

    It’s Stephen Tall.

    I too saw that interview and I was very pleased to see Evan avoid T im Montgomerie’s siren calls to him to pretend there are areas of apparent ‘agreement’ on Education ‘reform.’

    Tim Montgomerie should take note: certain right-wingers with far too much influence than power-base, favour Gove’s education plans. Most party members are very wary of Gove and all his works. Pity those on Conservative Home are not as sceptical.

    Gove’s manoeuvring has been exposed at last thank goodness, and I hope our Leadership have now wised up.

  • @Jason
    “However, I’d love to hear any one of our leadership say,“We made a mistake”. Perhaps then we could move on.”

    Are you actually asking them to apologise to you (the Party) or to the Country? With regard to tuition fees I may agree, but the whole signing of the pledge thing was a daft idea to start with anyway (you would also have also been stuffed if the coalition was with Labour). Although the buck obviously stops with the leadership, they don’t operate a in a vacuum so maybe there was a wider Party error as well. However it is done, you do need to get over it as I can’t see you winning many new voters by digging trenches and lobbing grenades at each other (just my humble opinion of course).

    Again, just a humble opinion, is it also possible that despite the fact that the LDP preached the politics of coalition for some time, a lot of members never thought the unthinkable. Because of that they never prepared themselves mentally for the fact that the coalition may not be with a left wing party? If that were the case, wouldn’t the Party membership owe an apology to the leadership for failing to properly think about what coalition may actually mean, instead of what they hoped it would mean?

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jul '12 - 11:33am

    We should stop issuing material which overstates our position in the coalition, such as the ridiculous “75% of our manifesto implemented” line, and the whole “rose garden” approach, and instead be honest that the distortion of the current electoral system means we are under-represented and the Tories are over-represented, so what we have is essentially a Tory government with a little LibDem influence. What that influence amounts to is being a counter-weight to the Conservative Party’s own right-wing, meaning all we can actually do is support what Cameron wants when we also want it and his party’s far right does not.

    If people think we are dirty rotten sorts for going into the coalition so they’ll never vote for us again, well, it looks like they’ll have their wishes – let’s see how they find it when the Conservatives have a full majority, as they may if our vote collapses in 2015, and certainly will after the mess a majority Labour government will give us if 2015 delivers a Labour majority. The argument against us used by our opponents on the left really is bizarre – it seems to be that WE are the reason the government is so right-wing, so if we did not exist and we had just a Tory government it would be practically social democratic. Hah hah – it will be yet another opportunity for us to say “told you so”.

    We should be laying the grounds for our long-term revival now. Is it really so difficult to say “If you like what the right-wing of the Conservative Party wants (sacking at will, less tax for bankers, putting control of everything vital into the hands of people like G4S), vote to destroy us (i.e. either Labour or Tory), if you want us to be stronger in stopping that vote to make us stronger”?

  • After reading this article (especially the concluding solution), I’m convinced Stephen Tall needs to be in Parliament.

    Excellent analysis.

  • You cannot end the coalition?

    Well, why then should the Conservatives implement any Lib-Dem policies at all?

    Instead, they can happily undermine any Lib-Dem favoured policies (voting reform, House of Lords reform) secure in the knowledge you”ll put up with such behaviour.

    If a junior coalition partner doesn’t have “deal breaker” issues AND isn’t prepared to walk if those aren’t delivered on, then the senior coalition partners wil just treat them as the “mud-flap” on the government limo – there for voters to vent their ire on for unpopular policies, while credit for the popular ones is hoovered up by the senior party.

  • I am surprised that some libdems are so short sighted re some tax issues.I struggle financially and pay my taxes but I do believe that we should reduce taxes on hardworking small/ to medium size companies and individuals and taxing the wealth (ier ) only results in avoidance and mass exodus and I do think it is in many cases coming from a place of envy. On saying that, it depends on what you call wealthy and also depends on which tax . Large corps should be reigned in but in many cases a tax is unfair such as personal INHERITANCE TAX. – it is misunderstood as a tax for the rich. It is not. It is a tax on the middle hardworkers who live in London and the south, who are not financially savvy. family homes are sold to pay the gov It is a wicked tax that only the savvy know how to avoid. ( i.e Miliband ! ) the threshold is far too low. a small house in fulham that a family might have been living in for generations would result in a pay out of £3 or £400,000 to the government and that family would have already paid tax all their lives. It frightens old people who have scrimped all of their lives and wish for the family home to go to their children and instead ends up with HMRC. Of course, Nick Clegg will inherit anything up to 30 million which is tied up in trusts, so he will not need to worry.

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