Can we stop apologising for being in government yet?

One of the things that has puzzled me most about two years of the Coalition is the very differing approaches to being in power between the two partners, both in the way they look at the world, and in the way that the world looks back.

In many ways, the Conservatives have it far easier. The vast leviathan which is the deficit provides ample justification for doing what Conservatives are expected to do – cut government spending – although it has made cutting taxes for their client base rather more difficult. And, for that proportion of the population who vote Conservative out of conviction, habit or fear, that’s just fine – it’s what they expect them, nay want them to do. And the rest of the population don’t like them, and it doesn’t matter, so long as they don’t coalesce around one opposition party.

Their major problems are twofold. The right wing of the Party doesn’t like, or understand, the notion that a junior partner has the right to say, “sorry, no further”. Phrases like “the tail wagging the dog” trip easily from their tongues but in truth, they have little choice but to stay loyal(ish) as, no matter how emboldened UKIP become, they still don’t offer anything other than an opportunity to abandon Party discipline en route to retirement. They can make life uncomfortable though, thanks to the Daily Telegraph.

Their other problem is that old chestnut, presentation. Most Conservative complaints are about the politics, rather than the policy itself. The pasty tax means little to most Conservative MPs, except that it makes marginal seats a little more marginal. But, if the media can be hoodwinked, and the direction of travel is broadly correct, they’ll reconcile themselves to most things.

They’re comfortable with power, as they expect to be wielding it. We’re not. Not only do we not expect to be wielding it, but nobody else expected it either. We’ve rather spoilt the illusion that we are the small furry mammals amongst the dinosaurs – cute(ish), harmless and no real threat.

We agonise publicly about cutting budgets, because we don’t like to do that, unless services are protected. We’re not really used to the cynicism of Whitehall politics, the notion that compromises are reached behind closed doors. We rather hoped that we would build the Camelot of a new politics. And it hasn’t worked out like that at all. So we apologise, we tell the public that we have restrained the big, bad Tories from taking a slash and burn approach to the public sector, to the NHS and to the welfare state. Well meaning, but a bit feeble, some think.

And as for the public, they’ve swung from having a rather naïve view of us to an extremely cynical one. “You’re only in it for the power!”, they exclaim, neatly forgetting that if we’d wanted that, we’d have joined one of the big two (so much easier, so much more career certainty). They almost seem surprised – what did they think we delivered all of those leaflets for?

So, it’s time to take a deep breath, stand up straight and tell the British public, “Yes, we’re in it for the power, the power to change things to create a properly liberal society. And we’ll work with whoever is best placed to help deliver that, wherever the opportunity arises.”.

And instead of apologising, we should be using the platform we’ve been given to make the case for more liberalism.

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  • The latest opinion polls put the lib dems on 8-11%, thats a collapse in support of 60-70%. This suggest intense public dissatisfaction. Your solution is to say ‘we did it for power’?!

    I suspect this won’t be an effective strategy.

  • Simon mcgrath 17th Apr '12 - 9:25am

    Excellent, of course we are in it for the power because without power we can’t bring about a Liberal country.

  • Bill le Breton 17th Apr '12 - 9:28am

    Good Morning, Mark. I am going to be ageist and experiencist (if there is such a word).
    The Coalition parties are not doing very well because they keep making straightforward errors of political judgement.
    The UK is actually conducting a huge experiment. It has as the leaders of its significant political parties three relatively young men. Here are the years of their birth:1966 (Cameron), 1967 (Clegg) or 1969 (Miliband).
    The Economist recently reported on research into comparisons in age and wisdom in Japan and the US
    It found a paradox that in collectivist Japan wisdom was achieved at a much younger age and in individualistic America at much older age.
    Our dear Leader (and Cameron for that matter) has never been really at ease with the advice from such people as Cable, Ashdown, Campbell and Williams, preferring people of his own generation and younger.
    So, UK (but not Scottish) policy is directed and advised by people with hardly any political experience and very little so called real world experience.
    If the Coalition is to ‘get its act together’ its Leaders need to say goodbye to its young advisers and install a few grey heads of which we have many in the Commons, in the Lords, in the Town Halls and among the best campaigners in the Party.
    At the moment the noise from the Gaffers is drowning out the good and wasting the potential of LIberal Democracy.

  • Andrew Tennant 17th Apr '12 - 9:34am

    Too right!

    It is far easier to get power through standing for either the Tory or Labour parties – we each chose and campaign for the Liberal Democrats because we hope and expect they can do better.

  • We need not apologise for being in Government, Mark, although, as I have written rather more extensively on the Members’ Forum, I think certain of the members of the parliamentary Parties have for a number of years been showing extreme, and premature, as it turns out, urgency to get into Government. What we need to apologise for is the way we have acted in Government. Yes, utopia, or Camelot, as you put it, was not likely to be an immediate outcome, but we needed to build a consensus understanding of how the new politics would be built, not grab the first governmental opportunity without thinking through the possible effects.

    Apologies for repetition, but had we listened to many seasoned economists, rather than the “media” and associated “public opinion”, we would have realised that the “deficit issue”, certainly here, was not as severe as the Tories, desperate to put their cuts package in, tried to make out. Opinion out there will not change until we admit we got it wrong and change the party’s approach. Another, less public opinion related issue, but very much about “building the new politics”, is redefining economic indicators, in order to bring them in line with the natural resource and environmental parameters, without which we will create conflict, and ultimately destroy anything worthwhile in the world. The Lib Dems have been the practical party for these things – I well remember Paddy Ashdown trying to get a redrawing of economic indicators in this way – we are coming close to losing this.

  • PS To those who say the Parliamentary parties should learn from our experience in local govt, I would say that is very different. UK local government has always had to respond to the legal and financial parameters of central government, so it has an easy get-out if accused of doing one thing and saying another – “it was the Government wot done it”. In Government, you have no such excuse. Part of the new politics is about building the internationalpolity to regulate and control the “other side” of globalisation. We cannot continue to allow international markets to dominate our democratic decisions. I think people will find ample evidence over the years that much Lib Dem philosophy and policy thinking is in this direction

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Apr '12 - 10:26am

    They’re comfortable with power, as they expect to be wielding it. We’re not. Not only do we not expect to be wielding it, but nobody else expected it either. We’ve rather spoilt the illusion that we are the small furry mammals amongst the dinosaurs – cute(ish), harmless and no real threat.

    But this is nonsense. In every general election since the 1970s we’ve held out the possibility that there will be what we called a “balanced” and everyone else called a “hung” parliament, and that we would be able to wield power in such a situation. If it really was the case that nobody expected us to be a junior partner in a coalition why is it that general election coverage of our party has tended to be dominated by the question “which one will you jump into bed with?”. That question suggests to me there WAS very much an expectation this would eventually happen.

    Indeed, this seems to be the problem – we held out being a junior coalition partner as being some sort of nirvana where we would be able to wield immense power, picking and choosing who we would form a coalition with and forcing our policies on them. So did our opponents, for opposite reasons, they wanted to warn about this happening as an argument against multi-party politics, the fear of small parties gaining too much power through coalitions. Now we have found it does not work like that, yet the British public seem to believe it did, that we “put the Conservatives in” voluntarily rather than because that was the only viable government, and that we have the power to veto every Conservative policy and enforce every policy of our own. The reality is that a junior coalition partner does not have much power, particularly when there is no alternative coalition and it does not have a solid block of voters on its side.

    The message you say you want to give the British public in your penultimate paragraph is the message that has been put out by our party leadership and those loyal to it since the coalition was formed. And it has failed and failed badly. It makes us look unbearably smug, and makes it seem we are very happy with everything the coalition is doing.

    We need to be doing the opposite – making clear the coalition exists in its current form due to a combination of the way the British people voted and the electoral system, both of which are very far from our ideal. Sure, we have been able to exert some influence, but it is limited, in fact limited to those aspects of policy where Cameron finds our support convenient to bolster his arguments within his own party.

    We also need to make clear that one of the biggest things tying us down in fighting against the worst of Tory right-wing extremism is the lack of backing from the Labour Party. When we do manage to push reformist measures through, we get attacked mercilessly from the right-wing press for it, but where is Labour? Generally still accusing us of becoming 100% Tory and quite often joining in with the right-wing press in attacking us for it. The obvious recent examples are the tax relief on big charity donations and the so-called (but quite wrongly) “granny tax”. Both of these are clear progressive measures. Tax reliefs for older people are regressive because they go only to those who get enough to be taxed, higher state pensions for all are far better. The charity tax relief arguments are ridiculous, because they ignore the fact that every penny which goes to such tax relief is a penny less the government has so a penny more that has to be made in spending cuts. Sorry, but in a time of crisis, I don’t see subsidising whatever charities rich people most favour by adding to their donations should be at all a priority. If we had Labour joining us in these sort of arguments when we are up against the Tory right-wing, we could be much more forceful and we could push this governmemnt more to the left. Instead we have a Labour Party which is almost policy free, relying on our vote collapsing so it can take over majority government next time without having to exercise anything in the way of brain power. And if they don’t exercise brain power, they’ll be easy pickings for those right-wingers who know how to impress gullible social democrat types – see what happened under Blair.

  • patricia roche 17th Apr '12 - 10:44am

    I am a voter and I would like an apology for the health service.

  • We should only stop apologising for being in government when we also stop doing the wrong things. Circumstance today has led me to the nonsense that is the change to Housing Benefit eligibility and direct payment; yesterday it was the “granny tax” and the working families tax credit changes. None of these attacks on the old and on the poorest are justifiable and Lib Dems in government should have stood up and spoken against them. Same with the NHS reforms – outside of the coalition agreement and very hard to explain in the face of Labour scaremongering.

    When the Quad have finished operating in a vacuum and determining what coalition policy is (quite irrespective of the coalition agreement), we might have some chance of imposing more liberal outcomes on government policy than we have achieved so far.

  • Can I point out we are about to get hammered in local elections and we should stop apologising. NHS, fees..Nick’s in dream world…he needs to go! And go now

  • LondonLiberal 17th Apr '12 - 12:17pm

    and now we’ve been overtaken by UKIP in national polls. nice one nick.

  • Bill le Breton is exactly right. What the party needs in government is a “nous-ometer” – to really pull apart those seemingly innocuous policies which., to Joe Public, don’t look like they’ve been ameliorated at all by LD intervention.

    Rather than eagerly taking ownership of some of these barking Tory ideas, we should bluntly abstain on those policies we despise that are expressly outside the CA.

    Unfortunately, given the succession of hand grenade policies the Tories have lobbed at us, it’s arguable whether there is any way back

    We hear a lot about how well the quad get on, but that’s part of the problem, and I am dubious that Danny Alexander, whatever his other skills, has the skills to handle the treasury

  • Geoffrey Payne 17th Apr '12 - 12:32pm

    One of my core beliefs is that the gap between rich and poor should be narrowed rather than increased. Although some government policies aim to achieve that, other policies appear to do the opposite. The IFS predict child poverty will increase by 80,000 by 2012 form the policies of the last budget. If they are right then that deserves more than an apology.

  • Matthew Huntbach: “where is Labour?” They are sat there, rubbing their hands with glee. They are in disarray themselves at the moment but they are storing up political capital for the future. They have no interest in backing us over anything and much interest in seeing us destroyed as a political force. The Tories are keen to see the same.

  • We also need to make clear that one of the biggest things tying us down in fighting against the worst of Tory right-wing extremism is the lack of backing from the Labour Party

    Well that about sums up the confusion – although we have jumped into bed with the Conservatives we ought to blame Labour for their lack of backing for us……!

  • Mr Valladeres, you say of the LibDems that “We agonise publicly about cutting budgets…” and “…we apologise…”. That might be true, to some extent, of contributors to this site, but I haven’t seen any public hand-ringing from the parliamentary party, and certainly not from the LIbDem ‘front bench’. Quite the contrary in fact. Over the last two years the LIbDems in government have appeared at least as keen on the controversial bits of policy, of which there have been many, as the Conservatives.

    Leading LibDems seemed supremely comfortable with the £9000 student fees, with the various cuts, with the Conservative-inspired NHS reorganisation (Mr Clegg signed up to the NHS changes wholesale – well before the LibDem ‘improvements’), with withholding the NHS Risk Assessment, with the “Granny Tax” and so on. What I think has taken the voting public by surprise is that not only have the LIbDems embraced policies that would seem – even to the casual observer – the opposite of what LIbDems stand for, but their enthusiasm for these policies and the very absence of apologies. It is this, and not just the fact that you are in a coalition, that explains the LIbDems’ low poll ratings.

  • …………………………….We agonise publicly about cutting budgets, because we don’t like to do that, unless services are protected……………..

    Really? It must be me, but haven’t the spokespersons, on the media, defending the changes on Welfare, Child Poverty, Disability, etc. usually been LibDems?

    So Cameron twists a few arms or we volunteer; either way the electorate get a completely different impression than the one you propose.

  • Rather unfashionably, I am keen that our party should remain actively committed to the coalition for the duration of the present parliament. Not beyond that point, for the next parliament will be another world. But it seems to me that if we are ever going to demonstrate our capacity to make an effective contribution not just to British political life in general but to the way this country is actually governed, the only means of doing so is for Liberal Democrat ministers to show that they can genuinely make a difference while in office. We can debate endlessly among ourselves what they have so far achieved and what they should have done differently, but the proper verdict on their performance will be that delivered by the electorate not now but at the end of this parliament. Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, Michael Moore, Ed Davey, it is up to you to win the arguments with your Coalition colleagues and wow us with the results !

  • @Growler. I agree, and I am beginning to think differently about Ed Milliband. He has been painted as pretty useless by all and sundry (quite believable – but perhaps not). Labour are, from their point of view, doing exactly what they should be doing and that is keeping their heads low, thus making sure ALL the flak for unpopular measures is directed at the Coalition.

    @Matthew Huntbach. Labour (and the Conservatives) are not in the business of doing the LIbDems favours. Why should they?

  • Dave Page, every metric showed that, prior to the Coalition, the NHS offered an exceptional return given the money spent on it.

    There are always arguments for reform, but that the NHS was under performing under Labour is not one of them.

    As for your defence of lib dem intervention in the bill – firstly, Nick Clegg, and most of the parliamentary Lib Dems, were happy with the bill as it stood before the Lords amendments. Secondly almost every expert in the NHS opposed it, and the Coalition rode roughshod over these views without considering the evidence they presented. Thirdly it’s extremely unpopular with most of the public, especially the parts of the public that don’t tend to vote Tory. Claiming it is a good thing will, I suspect, go down very badly in the local election. Perhaps this is why Labour are making a big thing of it.

  • Dave PageApr 17 – 1:23 pm Patricia Roche, I’m sorry for the NHS that Labour bequeathed to you, and glad that the Lib Dems managed to amend the Tory free-market free-for-all into a sensible, liberal scheme that undoes the wost of Labour’s private sector bias……….

    Sorry, but you’re 16 days too late with that post!

  • David Allen 17th Apr '12 - 1:54pm

    “It’s time to take a deep breath, stand up straight and tell the British public, “Yes, we’re in it for the power, the power to change things to create a properly liberal society.”

    That could, conceivably, be a good line. It would work if we could show what we meant by “change” and “liberal society”, what we were achieving by taking this course, and why it mattered to Joe andJo Public.

    Well, we got some early progress on civil liberties, though now it seems that is going to get rolled back. We got Trident replacement postponed six months. We got Heathrow’s third runway taken off the agenda, for a bit.

    We now seem to have elevated to a point of high liberal principle the belief that it is a huge change for the better if we raise the tax threshold, while also raising VAT to get the money back again from much the same set of people as we were trying to help.

    Oh, and we endorsed some major changes in the way private companies will be able to take over health and education, if we want to boast that these things are “liberal”.

    That’s what we’ve achieved with power, that and a catastrophic loss of public credibility. Was it worth it? And if it wasn’t, why don’t we pack it in?

  • paul barker 17th Apr '12 - 2:03pm

    I really dont know how to say this without the risk of sounding arrogant or grumpy so apologies if I do .
    The polls or rather “the polls” since when the media say polls they almost always mean voting intention (VI) polls, ignoring all the others.
    The polls on economic competence & leadership give much the same result that the 3 main parties are in the same order as at the last election -con, labour , libdems & that the tories have increased their lead over labour while the gap between labour & libdems has shrunk.
    This is a very different story to the one told by the VI polls, in fact both stories cant be true. At least one lot of polls is nonsense.

    Luckily in 2 weeks we will have some eidence from actual votes. Some people seem to know the results already ( see dave jones above) but I dont. I think we will see small losses for both coalition parties, net losses of 50 seats or less for us.
    Lets wait & see before we panic.

  • mike cobley 17th Apr '12 - 2:17pm

    Well, I’ve been a party member since before the merger and I have to say that the level of self-delusion regarding public opinion of us is unprecedented. Many party members, at all levels, seem to believe that ordinary voters are going to give us brownie points for getting this or that piece of the LD manifesto through, or because we blunted this or that piece of Tory savagery. Sadly, the truth is that we will be seen as responsible for every public sector sacking, every disabled claimant made distraught by ATOS, every wageless family and low-paid worker losing out, and every instance of private sector corporations scoffing from the treasury trough. And all the rest, all the local service cuts and the hands-off approach to utility companies blindly following the primitive rules of the market and charging what the market will stand. We are on course to be punished, because we deserve to be: the Tories would not be able to carry out their draconian measures (while shielding the wealthy sectors) without the votes of Liberal Democrat MPs. We are culpable, and for now it is the party’s councillors that will bear the brunt of the public’s anger.

    But even if May 3rd does see another great scything of party representatives, the coalition groupies will continue to sail on unperturbed. Because after all Liberalism is being spread throughout the nation, and who could argue with that? Since it is the shrivelled, parsimonious Liberalism from a century ago, a 19th century steampowered creed which played its part in the foundation of modern Toryism. This disinterred Liberalism is the worm in the party apple, but now all we can do is wait for the toxins to work their way through and hope that once they are cleansed that there is something resembling a political party left after 2015.

  • I agree with a number of above posters that the party on the whole may think one way but the leadership is operating to a different strategy

    Left wing ex-voters like me still have sympathy with the party in general which is why we are still here debating but the example set by the parliamentary party is what we will base our votes on

    The amount of knee-jerk anti-left comments on things such as the unions etc parrot the same rubbish that the Tories do. At the same time we see speeches by that expenses cheat Laws trying to cosy up more and more to the Tories

    We see members on here saying that there is a difference between the LD an the Tories well it would be nice to see some of the criticism we see of Labour so directed towards the Tories. The whole concept of an independent LD partyis a joke

    I have posted before that the party will not survive the next election as a coherent single party – the best case would be a Labour OM funnily enough

    I would still not rule out a pact between you and the Tories for 2015 – I will be looking if there is any indication at the LE of Tories or LD standing aside for one another

  • “I think we will see small losses for both coalition parties, net losses of 50 seats or less for us.”

    I wager it will be nearer to 200.

  • Paul Barker: ” I think we will see small losses for both coalition parties, net losses of 50 seats or less for us.
    Lets wait & see before we panic.”

    This isn’t about what hurts or helps electorally. It is about what is right and what is liberal. Get that right, be consistent and (if the public agree with it) the votes will follow.

    It is the same distinction between an honest, socialist Labour party with principles (that happened to become unelectable) and New Labour (sans-principle, avec popularitee). The key difference is Labour’s approach became out of step with post-Seventies public attitudes. What we are doing is simply sacrificing our credibility by being inconsistent and by ignoring our principles, using coalition as an excuse.

    Now is the time to be ever more firm in our principles and to apply them with conviction and consistency. If our coalition partners don’t like that it blocks certain policies or offends their principles, let them find new ones.

  • Mark

    I am critical of the Coalition not because it exists (although I find it difficult to see the marriage between how the LD have sold themselves in recent elections and the Tories) but in how it has been practiced by the leadership

    I am still amazed at the lack of rebellion within the party at the policies being followed and I am now convinced that you are now following a more right-wing libertarian philosophy as expounded by Tim Leunig rather than a social liberalism

    All we,as voters, want is a clarity of what the party is and what we should expect when you are in Government. Do you really think that, in the case of a 2015 coalition, you can work with Labour after your rhetoric since 2010 or continue with the Tories without becoming the new FDP?

    It is the almost complete capitulation to the Tories that I find hard to take

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Apr '12 - 4:58pm

    Godfrey, you illustrate my point so well. You join in the right-wing press stirring up this story about the “granny tax”. There is no such thing, it is simply keeping the extra tax allowance for elderly people down so that eventually the idea of a special tax allowance for being old disappears. As I said, this is a progressive measure because an extra tax allowance by its nature benefits only those with an income large enough to be taxed. Tax allowances exist to encourage people to do useful things, but there is no need to encourage people to become old because it happens naturally anyway. If one believes, as I do, that people who are old should have extra income to cover all the various asepcts of being old and so that they should not need to carry on working, then surely it is obvious such extra income should go to EVERYONE who is old, and not just those with enough income to benefit from a tax allowance. So shifting support for the old from tax allowances to higher state pensions is a good thing. The campaign against it from the right-wing press is the right-wing press doing their usual thing of supporting the wealthier end of society using language which falsely suggests progressive measures are an attack on us all.

    You write “Labour (and the Conservatives) are not in the business of doing the LIbDems favours. Why should they?”, and my answer to that is “So what is their business?”.

    Is Labour’s business merely to gain power for the Labour Party? If it is, then joining in attacks from the right-wing on the Liberal Democrats in the hope it will destroy the Liberal Democrats makes sense. But if Labour’s business is to support policies which will make our country more equal, then it does not make sense. Joining in right-wing attacks on left-wing initiatives from the Liberal Democrats within the coalition helps push the current government to the right. Is that what Labour wants, a more right-wing government? Supporting the weasel words of right-wing attacks on the Liberal Democrats, which Labour is doing here, bolsters the political right and will make it more difficult for Labour to pursue left-wing policies if it comes to power.

  • Matthew Huntbach, what left-wing initiatives have the Lib Dems come up with in government?

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Apr '12 - 5:38pm


    We see members on here saying that there is a difference between the LD an the Tories well it would be nice to see some of the criticism we see of Labour so directed towards the Tories. The whole concept of an independent LD partyis a joke

    I suggest you try reading the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph to see how they cover the position of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition. The right-wing press is full of angry attacks on the Liberal Democrats for holding back what they would see as true Conservatism.

    I am one of those who is unhappy with the Liberal Democrat leadership for puting across the sort of smug “we’re doing well in the coalition” message which gives ammunition to people like you to make the claims you do make. That is why I think Mark Valladares is so wrong here, because he’s essentially saying carry on with this. Neverthless, I do realise that a coalition partner one fifth the size of the other coalition partner is going to have to give up a lot of what it would regard as ideal in order to get something which it regards as value through.

    I was at the Liberal Democrat Spring conference in Gateshead this year, this is the first time I’ve attended the party’s national conference for many years. I did not get the impression of a party which is indistinguishable from the Conservatives. I saw, even from those to the right in the party, a party with very different ideals. For example I heard no support from anyone for the reduction in the top rate of income tax. I heard no-one arguing for the privatisation of the NHS – the argument on that issue was all about the extrent to which a compromise could be reached which would push the changes from the government away from that. I heard plenty of attacks on the Conservative Party. I would like to have heard a little more in public from those in government, but also I can see they are in a delicate position having to work with them and try and get somethoing out of them.

    I am sorry to have to keep repeating myself on this, but it seems to me that if there was a greater acceptance on the general left in this country for what the Liberal Democrats are doing in government rather than this continual “they’ve become indistinguishable from the Tories”, so much more could be achieved. Instead, when the Liberal Democrats concede to the Tories, as must happen in a coalition where they are much the smaller party, they get vociferously attacked from the left outside the Liberal Democrats, but when the Liberal Democrats stand their ground at get concessions there is no acknowledgement, or even as recent, Labour supporters join in on the right-wing attacks on the Liberal Democrats.

    If there was greater public backing which the Liberal Democrats could point to when trying to get concessions from the Conservatives, they would be in a far better negotiating position than they are at present when there is almost none. It seems to me that the position of the Labour Party is that the Labour Party wants this country to be pushed to the right politically, is very happy to see the Tories winning the arguments against the Liberal Democrats within the coalition. Well, fine, but what does this really mean? It means the Labour Party puts having political power just for itself well above any sort of policy principles. It wants to see the Liberal Democrats destroyed, and it is happy for the country to be wrecked by the Tories’ right-wing policies in order to achieve that. And for what? Well, just look at what Labour did last time it had a majority and so had unrestricted power. It continued the policies of the previous Tory government pushing this country further to the right and further along the lines of control by big businesswhich has no long-term loyalty to this country, and added to that economic incompetence which has left this country in a much bigger mess than comparable countries. There is a clear left-wing challenge to where this country is now – and Labour is not giving it, Labour is instead a whingeing waste of space, happy to be waiting to get into power not by any merits of itself but just by the return to two party politics and the pendulum swing.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Apr '12 - 5:39pm

    Matthew Huntbach, what left-wing initiatives have the Lib Dems come up with in government?

    I have already noted one, please try reading what I wrote.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Apr '12 - 5:57pm


    It is the almost complete capitulation to the Tories that I find hard to take

    But this is simply not the case. Even on the issue which is the most notorious one for the accusation “The Liberal Democrats have capitulated to theTories”, which is university tuition fees, the reality is that the Liberal Democrats have worked to push policy away from what the Tories originally intended. Liberal Democrat action helped ensure that students would pay less under this system than they would under what Labour proposed, the compromise reached was that while this was still fees paid by a loan, it was very close to a graduate tax. I don’t like it at all, but I can accept this is what democratic politics is about – you try to reach a compromise which comes somewhere betwen the ideal position of the various parties involved. Sorry, but reality is that the people of this country chose to elect a Parliament where the Tories had the most power, and chose the next year to support an electoral system which gave them that and reduced the strength of third parties (had AV been in place, the likely balance of parties on the 2010 election result would have made a Labour-LibDem coalition viable – the people of this country voted by two to one against that). The consequence of how the people voted is that we do have a Tory dominated government pushing right-wing policies with the Liberal Democrats having only a small influence. If the people of this country did not like that, they should have shown so by voting to start the ball rolling on electoral reform. Instead they voted to support the principle that the party with the most votes should have representation distorted in its favour, which gives us the government we have now. Evry NO vote in the referendum last year was, in effect, a vote in favour of the current government on its current terms, as it was a vote in favour of the electoral system which made it the only possibility.

    I very much wish the Liberal Democrats could be doing much more in government, could be standing up to the Tories with much more strength. However, when I see those who could be helping us do that instead just kicking us in the teeth, well, it makes me sick.

  • Peter Watson 17th Apr '12 - 6:18pm

    “I do realise that a coalition partner one fifth the size of the other coalition partner is going to have to give up a lot of what it would regard as ideal in order to get something which it regards as value through.”
    Compared to our coalition partners, we may have fewer than 1/5 of the MPs (thanks to the First-Past-The-Post system to which our incompetent parliamentarians have doomed us for another generation), but we received nearly 2/3 as many votes. We did not need to sacrifice so much, and thanks to our actions in coalition polls demonstrate we have failed to represent most of those voters.
    As noted by other posters, being in government is an achievement of which we should be proud. Our behaviour in government is something for which we should apologise.

  • Matthew Huntbach – cutting tax isn’t leftwing. Leftwing, classically, is a tax and spend approach. Cutting taxes at the high and low end would be considered right wing by most people.

  • Peter Watson 17th Apr '12 - 6:26pm

    “Evry NO vote in the referendum last year was, in effect, a vote in favour of the current government on its current terms, as it was a vote in favour of the electoral system which made it the only possibility.”
    This was indeed the effect of each NO vote in the referendum. The irony which makes this such a crying shame is that we lost the referendum because our opponents were able to point to the actions of our leaders under a system which our opponents were then encouraging people to retain.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Apr '12 - 6:32pm

    Mark Valladares

    Bill makes a really good point about nous and real world experience. There have been times when I find myself thinking, “How the hell did we end up there?”. There may be very good reasons, but we don’t get to find out until afterwards, by which time the argument is lost.

    Part of the problem, however, is that many of the policies which are needed to rescue the country from the mess it is in and build a fairer more equitable society are very easily attacked by populist right-wing propaganda from the likes of the Daily Mail. I have been feeling this very much on the charity tax relief issue – if this is really at the heart of Nick Clegg’s “tycoon tax” proposal, well it makes me more sympathetic to Nick than I have been … well, ever. The reality of this is that higher rate tax relief on charitable giving means cuts in vital services have to be made for the government to subsidise rich people’s whims, yet because it is possible to whip it up as an attack onthe principle of charitable giving it’s a hard one to sell.

    How much harder then will it be to sell policies which reduce the huge amounts of unearned money which comes from home ownership and which help to bring down house prices and so make home ownership more accessible? Even the tiny start on this which we called “mansion tax” was shouted down by the right-wing press as an attack on property ownership and an attack on Londoners. What rot. This sort of thing, by bringing down house prices will make home ownership easier. The problem of high house prices is most acute in London, so those who will benefit most from it are ordinary Londoners. Yet the right-wing press played their usual game of making out that the few very wealthy people at the top who would be hit by this are somehow just the “middle” and so that it is an attack on ordinary people.

    I agree with a lot of what Bill is saying. Had the party leadership at the start taken advice from people in the party who had experience of balance of power situations in local government it might have avoided digging the hole which it is in now thanks to the appallingly bad way it presented the coalition. I quite agree that so much of what comes out from the party leadership and those close to it seems naive, seems to be the product of people who have little experience of real life, who have not learnt the lessons from the past in our party, who are just echoing current trendiness, the idle chatter of the social elite.

    Nevertheless, the crunch comes when there are things that need to be done but “nous” tells us it’s difficult to sell them. So much in my time, particularly on the property issue, I’ve felt my desie for a beter and fairer society pulling one way, and “nous” pulling the other. “Nous” told me, for example, not to make a big thing about the right-to-buy of council houses, though I regard that as one of the most damaging policies ever in the long term.

    So this brings me back to my point about how much more we could be doing if we had wider support from the left instead of these constant “you’ve sold out to the Tories” attacks. When we’re asking for things which are politically difficult to sell, which “nous” tells me we should avoid, we need support from the left to do it. If we don’t get it, if instead the Labour Party uses it for opportunist attacks on us, we will give up on them. Worst still, it means the Labour Party also will not be able to put those things in place if it gains power. So the continual drift of our country toi the right, to becoming an even more ugly divided society will continue.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Apr '12 - 6:47pm

    Peter Watson

    Compared to our coalition partners, we may have fewer than 1/5 of the MPs (thanks to the First-Past-The-Post system to which our incompetent parliamentarians have doomed us for another generation), but we received nearly 2/3 as many votes.

    Yes, I know that and you know that. But who else cares? The reality is that it’s the balance of MPs in Parliament that counts. You may think it should not, and I agree with you, but I am a supporter of electoral reform and the people of this country voted, by two to one, against even the “miserable little compromise of AV”. Try reading the right-wing press to see how it goes down, try seeing how it is full of attacks on us, which are very much based on the idea that the Tories “won” the last general election and that with our small number of MPs compared to the Tories we have no right to try and force our ideas through.

    And you know what – the Labour Party here agrees with the right wing press. Oh, Labour supporters moan about us “capitulating to the Tories”, but where were they on electoral reform? Did Labour even support the “miserable little compromise”? If any of them did, it was so feebly I didn’t notice. So, there we go, as a Liberal Democrat supporter, I feel we are fighting on two fronts – we are fighting the Tories in government and we are fighting the Tories in the Labour Party who are attacking us instead of giving us the support we need to stand up against the real Tories. Because all the Labour Party wants is to get back to the good old two party system which has so wrecked our country, and they’ll attack us in an unprincipled way to try and destroy us so they can get there. They make me sick, they really do.

  • Matthew Huntbach.
    [1] I am not a member of the Labour Party, so I am not privy to that party’s thoughts, however I would assume that the answer to the question “Is Labour’s business merely to gain power for the Labour Party?” is an emphatic “yes”. Bearing in mind the apparent agonies experienced by the LIbDems over the last two years, outright victory, i.e. an overall majority in our FPTP system (which I have despised for decades) seems utopian by comparison.
    [2] I believe that, yes, the voting public believe that as things stand, the LibDems are simple enablers to a Conservative regime. I think the results of this Coalition government more than bear out that opinion. Why is this so? The number of votes cast for the LIbDems in 2010 (66% of those cast for the Conservatives) gave the LIbDem leadership huge leverage with a Tory Party desperate for power. They didn’t come close to using that power; ominously many voters, I suspect, believe that the LibDem leaders are/were ideologically so close to the Conservatives they saw no reason at all for a political fist-fight with people with whom they rather agreed with. The rest is history.
    [3] Re the Granny Tax (yes, a horrible name from the right-wing press). I do not agree that not raising the pensioner tax threshold is progressive. It is a move that deserves no adverb one way or the other. There is no grand strategy to raise pensions by freezing tax allowances; it is simply a wheeze by Osborne to save a bit of money –with the Messrs Clegg and Alexander somewhere in tow.

  • Paul Barker wrote: “Luckily in 2 weeks we will have some eidence from actual votes. Some people seem to know the results already ( see dave jones above) but I dont. I think we will see small losses for both coalition parties, net losses of 50 seats or less for us.”

    You said much the same last year, Paul, and the result was much, much worse than you predicted. Once again, I think you are letting party loyalty overcome objectivity.

  • As has been said, “In a couple of weeks the electorate will tell us what it thinks of us”……… The last elections showed us that their verdict was, “Not much”.
    We, as a party,were crucified for our part in the coalition and yet we were told (mainly by those on the ‘right’) that there was no alternative. . I don’t know what will happen in the next local elections but, if yet again, we suffer losses even a fraction as bad will we still pretend that “The sun will come out tomorrow” and we will bounce back at the next general election?
    I read with incredulity posts blaming media misrepresentation when with our own eyes we see our leaders ‘out-Torying’ the Tories. To her credit Sarah Teather has been’ less than enthusiastic’ on parts of Welfare Reform but, on “Question Time”, her ranting defence of the government’s mistakes would have been laughable if it wasn’t so serious. Sadly, these are the images that the electorate take to the polls.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 17th Apr '12 - 9:18pm


    You talk about a hung Parliament being something that we’ve offered at every election since the 1970’s. And yes, that’s been the issue that the media have raised persistently. But they’ve generally done it in order to corner us, and a series of leaders have attempted not to address the issue in an actual campaign – until last time, when we finally found a stance which made philosophical sense (it’s the people who decide).

    But actual voters didn’t really believe it – how many times have Liberal Democrat campaigners been told, “Well, I’d vote for you, but you won’t form a government. In election after election, when it comes to turning up and putting a cross in a box in a General Election, voters revert to one of the two old parties for fear of getting the other.

    So I don’t agree with some of what you say.


    Be honest, how often do you hear a politician apologise? And when they do, what happens? They get attacked by the media and by people like us for being weak. If they change their mind, it’s called a u-turn and, guess what, they’re accused of being weak.

    And that’s a problem for all of us. Do we want the politics of strategically faked confidence, of rigid adherence to a course of action for fear of being portrayed as weak? What disappoints me is that our current political system makes proper debate, honest doubt and intellectual rigour virtually impossible. And worse still, many of our people are happy to play the same game, in the same way.

    David A.

    If we do pack it in, as you suggest we might, exactly who is left to represent the voice of British liberalism? If you believe in a liberal agenda, you need a vehicle through which to deliver it. For good or ill, the best option currently available is the Liberal Democrats. A political party is about more than its leader, even if that might be hard to credit sometimes. But like many of us, I’ve seen off a few leaders, and the Party is still ours, even after they’re gone. It’s up to us to fight for its soul.


    It is very easy to simply oppose cuts in government spending until you have no choice but to be a part of it. All three major parties went into the last election with the intention of cutting spending by between £80 and £100 billion per annum. Labour have the luxury of being able to say, “we support the idea of cuts, but not this one”, and are doing what any opposition would do under such circumstances. But any of the three, even with a majority, would have ended up doing a great many unpopular things.

    You can argue about what choices are made, and how those choices are decided upon – and for the record, some of the processes have looked pretty shambolic. But that’s a failure of the system and of individuals, not a failure caused by Liberal Democrats being in government.

  • Peter Watson 17th Apr '12 - 11:29pm

    Unfortunately, it’s not just about the cuts.
    Reforms in education and the NHS appear to be ideologically driven, supported by the parliamentary party but not the members, and not justified by any reduction in the national deficit.
    This is why it strikes home when Ed Milliband says, “The only thing that Nick Clegg stands for is when David Cameron enters the room.”
    The public actions of our leaders might be the result of behind-the-scenes hard-fought compromises that are in conflict with their principles, but this is not what the electorate sees. We see our MPs voting for policies we oppose and they opposed, we see Nick Clegg nodding and cheering on the front bench in parliamentary debates, we see Danny Alexander defending the budget on Newsnight, we see Sarah Teather defending everything on Question Time, we see Simon Hughes explaining the student fees that he could bring himself to vote neither for nor against, we see speaker after speaker at conference condemning the proposed NHS reforms only to beignored by the leadership. These are the images that are in the public eye. These are the soundbites which will be replayed in future election campaigns.

    I still believe that multi-party politics is vital.
    I still believe that electoral reform is necessary.
    I still believe that coalition government can be successful.
    I believe that our Liberal Democrat MPs have screwed up and let us down.

  • George KendallApr 17 – 11:51 pm………………..Though the party’s national image has been damaged by the impression we are divided,…………………….

    Quite the opposite! Our image has been damaged because we are seen to be united behind policies which we promised to oppose. As for ‘direct contact with party membership’; forget it. The wider electorate judge us by our elected MPs; the choir might be singing from the same hymn sheet but, if the congregation don’t get the message, we’ll end up with an almost empty church!

  • John Carlisle 18th Apr '12 - 8:43am

    If you look at the number of seats we have in parliament and the number of votes that got us there, then we are punching way above our weight. It is what we are throwing our punches at that is letting us down. We have achieved our 4 mainline election promises. Talk it up!
    Stop the half-arsed pronouncements on minor issues, many of which have to amended and go the heart of the nation with a thoughtful but radical business/ economy policy that encapsulates all our fairness principles and has a clear rapid recovery strategy. I do not want Tim Farron to waste time on Gay Marriage; but to pronounce on something that 24 million people really care about – employment.
    Finally, don’t knock Nick Clegg. He largely got us here, and in the media he is the best of three party leaders. Mind you, agree that he and others needs to be more mindful of the grey generation’s nous.

  • George Kendall. I belong to no political party, my own world view, however, leads me to always support the (l)Liberal ’cause’, put another way, as far as the LibDems are concerned I have no malicious axe to grind. BUT, I believe the LIbDems electorally are in a very precarious situation. And in this context your perceptions of the LibDem party within are, with respect, irrelevant (electorally speaking), and totally at odds with the perceptions held by ‘ordinary’ voters. In my opinion the voters (at least the ones I know) have less and less sympathy for anything the LibDems do. I do not know how this situation can be improved, but a first step would be for the Liberal Democrats themselves to realise that they as a party, are really, really not liked by far too many voters.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Apr '12 - 9:49am


    I believe that, yes, the voting public believe that as things stand, the LibDems are simple enablers to a Conservative regime. I think the results of this Coalition government more than bear out that opinion. Why is this so? The number of votes cast for the LIbDems in 2010 (66% of those cast for the Conservatives) gave the LIbDem leadership huge leverage with a Tory Party desperate for power.

    No it did not. There would have been more leverage had there been enough Labour MPs to form a viable coalition with them and a willingness in the Labour Party to do that, but there was not. The fact is that the British electorate and the electoral system combined to make a Conservative-led government the only possibility following the May 2010 election. A combination of Labour propaganda, ignorance, and the stupid way it has been handled by the Liberal Democrat leadership in talking up rather than down what could be achieved, has led to the belief amongst many that the Liberal Democrats are the “enablers to a Conservative regime”, but there was no other possibility.

    I’m afraid the argument about the LibDems getting 66% of the Tory vote just does not work. I have spent all my adult life as a passionate supporter of electoral reform, but I find whenever I try to talk about things like that, people’s eyes glaze over. In my experience the vast majority of people in this country suppose the share of MPs that a party has reflects its share of votes. This applies even to people who are reasonably clever, people in top positions – sadly in this country it is considered something to boast about if one is innumerate. See, for example, the staggering levels of innumeracy displayed in the AV referendum, the proud way in which people boasted of finding the simple algorithm of AV somehow too compolex to understand. If you suppose when LibDems are arguing with the Conservatives within the coalition that the line “We got 66% of your vote” will cause Conservatives to say “Oh yes, I forgot that, I’ll give in and let you have your way on policy”, you are very naive.

    The other thing, which Clegg supporters won’t mention but was actually a major factor in the weakness of the Liberal Democrat position in the coalition negotiations was that we left the election the big losers. Our vote was where we started, we ran a rubbish campaign which unlike most previous general election campaigns did not lead our vote upwards. We were on a clear downward trajectory at the end, if we’d tried to hold out for more, Cameron had the trump card “OK, we’ll have another general election, and let’s see how it is after that”. He then would have formed a minority government, any bad economic figures would have been blamed on the “instability” caused by a government which lacked a majority, and the next general election would have been fought in the theme “get rid of the Liberal Democrats so we can get on with governing”.

    I’m no fan of Nick Clegg, or of the right-wing economic tendency within the Liberal Democrats that appeared form nowhere a few years ago. If you look back over the history of my postings to Liberal Democrat Voice over the years, you will see I am one of the most passionate opponents of both of these. What I’m saying about the difficulty of our position in the coalition comes from long experience – going back to what I recall from the LibLab pact, and to times when I was involved with the party in local government balance-of-power situations. So it does echo the point Bill le Breton was making about our party leadership having made things worse for itself by ignoring the voices of experience within the party. You may think I am making the points I am making through some sort of mad party loyalty, but I assure you I am not.

    I’m sorry that you have not got the “granny tax” issue, that you are a victim of the right-wing propaganda over this. Let’s try again. The figures here are not the real figures, but are given to make the maths easy. Suppose we have one billion pounds to spend on one million pensioners. What is the best way to do it? One thousand pounds to each pensioner, or a tax allowance which means the half million pensioners who have the biggest private pensions get an extra two thousand each, the half million pensioners who have lower incomes get nothing? It’s not quite as crude as that, but even if it were you can be sure the Daily Mail would headline a switch from the latter to the former as “an attack on the elderly”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Apr '12 - 10:21am


    In my opinion the voters (at least the ones I know) have less and less sympathy for anything the LibDems do. I do not know how this situation can be improved, but a first step would be for the Liberal Democrats themselves to realise that they as a party, are really, really not liked by far too many voters.

    Godfrey, I am VERY well aware of this. That is why I have spent so much of my time since the coalition was formed arguing over these issues with people like you who, however much you do not seem to be getting the point, at least have enough interest in the Liberal Democrats to contribute to LDV.

    This idea of yours, and I find it a common one amongst people who come here to post naive stuff attacking the Liberal Democrats for “putting in the Tories”, that Liberal Democrat members do not realise how unpopular the party has become since the formatiom of the coalition, is completely ignorant of reality. We ordinary members of the party have seen how it has affected the reaction we get on the doorsteps, we have seen it lead to losses in council seats, we have seen colleagues we worked with leave the party.

    If what you are saying is that the party nationally should not be taking the sort of smug “We’re in power and we’re enjoying it” attitude, which Mark Valladares is STILL urging it to take, I agree with you. I’ve been saying this since the coalition was formed – I can see it was the only viable option, I can see the reality is that the Liberal Democrats are very restricted in what they can achieve in it, and I think the best way of running with this and maintaining our support is to play down what we can achieve rather than play it up.

    However, attacks like yours are one of the things keeping me in the party. The reason is that I’m a realist, not a fantasist. I live in the real world where I can see how limited the real power of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition is, you live in a fantasy world where you seem to believe they can just snap their fingers and make the Conservative Party give up its policies and support Liberal Democrat policies. As an antidote to your position, I suggest you read the Daily Mail or theDaily Telegraph to see what we are up against. You may think the Liberal Democrats have rolled over to become uncritical supports of the Conservatives, in the right-wing press, which is what most of the country reads, the Liberal Democrats are portrayed as election losers who have no right to exert any power and are a malevolent force standing in the way of the Conservatives and stopping them doing what is needed.

    When I find this sort of attack on us from the political right, and I turn around and look for some sort of support for our position from the political left, how do you think I feel when I find people like you joining in with the right in attacking us rather than giving us the sort of support we would need to be able to be more forceful in our demands within the coalition? You may say it is not your job or the job of the Labour Party to do this. Well, fine, but then what you are doing is aiding the Conservative Party. Well, it’s the old leftist stance, isn’t it? Sit back and let things deteriorate and pour scorn on the moderates who are trying to do something. Then the revolution will happen and all will be perfect (no need to worry about the details, it just will be). Or in the case of the Labour Party, a general election which gives them a majority. The Labour Party may win that way, or by destroying the Liberal Democrats hand over the country to a majority Conservative government – as has already happened in several places in local government where “I’ll never vote LibDem again” thinking has led to LibDem losses and Tory gains. I’d prefer a Labour Party which wins by constructing an intelligent left-wing alternative to what we have now, and also one which recognises the reality of where we are now so is not afraid to say things whch are difficult. Instead we have a clueless Labour Party which has nothing of value to say and hopes to win only by default.

  • Mathew Huntbach. “The fact is that the British electorate and the electoral system combined to make a Conservative-led government the only possibility following the May 2010 election.” I couldn’t agree more, and I have never said that there was any realistic alternative to to this current Coalition. I am saying that the LibDem parliamentary leadership could have obtained a much more ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ deal than the one that was struck. I know that the Tory party was, after 18 years of not winning elections, desperate for some power. Clegg could have played serious hard-ball and hard-to-get. He, and his fellow negotiators did not. And this, in my view, has caused a fault-line in the LibDems that increasingly overshadows any other problems. This is that the Liberal Democrat leadership ( judged by their actions) is seen by much of the party, and perhaps more importantly by a growing number of voters, as far too ideologically happy with the Conservative philosophy. In my view, it is this that is likely to make this Coalition project founder. Not the forming of the Coalition pe se. On the other points your raise I will agree to differ.

  • John Carlisle 18th Apr '12 - 10:43am

    I assume “half-a**ed” was considered impolite, so not published? Just checking some parameters here.

  • John Carlisle 18th Apr '12 - 10:45am

    My apologies, don’t know how I missed it!

  • Roger Roberts 18th Apr '12 - 10:57am

    I agree with Bill le Breton
    I am tired of hearing people who are hardly out of nappies telling many of us who have been campaigning for more years than we care to remember how to campaign. We have a number of older brilliant people in the party let the leadership learn from the wise old heads. they have been there made the mistakes and have learnt by them. The leadership needs to take that advice or the party will not be that forgiving.
    Mark you are right in some respects but we need to be much more aware of how people view us and what we say
    the student fees was a public relations disaster and we do not need any more of those

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 18th Apr '12 - 11:28am


    I’m closer to the internal dynamic than most, and see where the compromises are being made. But let me make it clear. This piece is about the notion of Liberal Democrats in government, rather than what has happened once we got there. And whilst young Mr Huntbach describes my view as smug, I’m anything but.

    As a Party, we’ve undergone a crash course in modern governance whilst in the public eye. It hasn’t been pretty and has exposed all sorts of problems hitherto unrealised. The relationship between the Party in Parliament and the Party in the country, the influence of the media, an apparent, and almost touching, naïvety about the intentions of others, and a lack of rigour in the early stages of government policy implementation have all played their part. And, to be even blunter, we’re paying the price for some decisions made prior to the formation of the Coalition, the tuition fees pledge being probably the worst of them.


    I agree with you, and knowing our team in the Lords, who have struggled to balance the need to compromise with our ‘Conservative friends’ on some issues in order to get them to compromise in favour of some of our key priorities with their strong sense of liberalism, there is a sense that it isn’t always appreciated by some of those fearfully bright young people who appear to run the show.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Apr '12 - 11:31am

    Godfrey, yes we will have to agree to disagree on whether the Liberal Democrats could have obtained more from the coalition. However, will you at least accept that I am a passionate opponent of Clegg, I have argued against him and what he has been trying to do with the party ever since he emerged as the leadership candidate with the backing of the political establishment? So what I am saying is not through any misplaced sense of party loyalty. On that basis I find comments like what you started with, which get read as suggesting all Liberal Democrats have become indistinguishable in view from the Conservatives, as not just offensive and lacking in knowledge as to what is really the case, but also as extremely damaging for what I would like to see, which is the party pulled back to the left.

    I think what I am saying is quite simple. If when the Liberal Democrats within the coalition do stand up to the Tories and pull government policy to the left, however little they can do that, the result is some sort of appreciation of what has been done amongst the British public in general, then it will be encouraged to do more of the same. If whatever the Liberal Democrats do, however much hard work they put in to ameliorating what the Tories who dominate the government want to do, the only reaction from the left outside the party is to carry on with the attacks on the party as a whole, accusing all of us of having become nothing but uncritical supporters of the Conservative Party, it will be much harder for Liberal Democrats to argue their case inside the government. We need the support of people like you to be able to say “look, when we push harder against the Tories, we build up our vote”. If it isn’t recognised when we are pushing harder and getting attacked from the right for it, and if instead people like you join in the attacks in an opportunist “let’s get rid of the Liberal Democrats by bad-mouthing them” way, then those in the party who are most inclined to give in to the Conservatives will win, as they can use the argument “Pushing against them is getting us nowhere, we have to become even closer to them in order for us to survive”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Apr '12 - 2:39pm

    Mark Valladares

    And whilst young Mr Huntbach describes my view as smug, I’m anything but.

    My point is really that it comes across as smug. Whatever you meant by it, people like Godfrey, with whom I have been arguing, are reading it as “all we were really after was power, and we’re happy to give away all our principles to get it”. Now I KNOW you didn’t mean it that way, but our biggest problem now is that a huge proportion of the population, including a large proportion of people who previously voted for us, think of it that way. Of course in reality I know we cannot expect Labour to do anything but play to it, but sorry Mark, please listen – the party has been coming out with the sort of stuff since the coalition was formed and it has not worked. Now if I, who am still a committed member of the party and as I have been posting fully realise the difficulties of being a junior coalition partner, am finding it smug and distasteful in the face of what many are suffering under this extreme right-wing (in economic terms) government, just how much worse must it seem to others who were less committed supporters of the party?

    Now, in your latest message you write about “all sorts of problems hitherto unrealised”, which as with your claim that no-one even considered we might end up in a coalition simply is not the case. The problems we have experienced in coalition were very predictable. There are plenty of people in this party who have thought and written about these things. There are very useful parallels with local government that could have been worked with. As Bill le Breton has suggested, the issue is NOT that no-one ever thought of these things in advance, it’s that the national leadership has placed too much reliance on people who lack experience and in fact whose view of what the Liberal Democrats are seems to reflect the fictional view of us the national media seem to portray, rather than the reality. Nick Clegg should have brought in a load of party old-hands to advise him, instead he brought in people from the marketing and PR world. Throughout my time of membership in the party (now over 30 years), whenever it has listened to the marketing and PR people and done what they say it has done badly, when it has instead listened to what its activists are saying it has done well. I quote the disastrous launch of the merged Liberal-SDP party as one very obvious and prominent example.

  • Howard Hove 18th Apr '12 - 3:17pm

    Matthew Huntbach wrote: “The reality is that it’s the balance of MPs in Parliament that counts. You may think it should not, and I agree with you, but I am a supporter of electoral reform and the people of this country voted, by two to one, against even the “miserable little compromise of AV”.

    You imply that even less people would have voted for proper PR. I don’t believe that would have been the case – the key problem with AV is that is such a miserable compromise that it does not even guarantee a more proportional result. The argument of fairness would have been very powerful, and an ‘all systems’ referendum would have generated a real national discussion and raised awareness. The AV referendum did none of this and that was eminently predictable – why anyone thought it was a worthwhile concession is beyond me.

    I could agree with much of your criticism of Labour, though remember that you are defending a party that is not only unbelievably tactically inept (see above) but which executed a smart about-turn on its policy on the deficit: one day pretty much the same as Alasdair Darling’s; the next day ditto re George Osborne, who it turned out the party leader had agreed with all along. I left mostly out of sheer embarrassment and I was not the only one.

    Much of the discussion above appears to assume that full coalition was the only option. Giving the Tories just enough rope would have been another. Too late now.

  • Why so defensive?

    The argument is clear, that the problems are massive, that Labour failed, and that the public got what they voted for. It’s democracy; we are democrats and we should celebrate it.

    I agree, apologising will get nobody anywhere because that will not change the facts of the matter. But I also think there are large sections of the public (aided by the media environment) who are happy to drag debate down to the level of their lowest expectations.

    We need to challenge those members of the public and press who are too apathetic and cynical to get involved in their local communities, to reengage with the political process and at the very minimum to vote.

    In too many parts of the country turnout will be too low for a functioning democracy – in many places fewer than 1-in-5 people will actually be involved in electing representatives, with less than half that number choosing the ‘winner’. The public is not doing it’s job.

    I am shocked that that huge swathes of the population are happy to complain at the state of politics and do so perversely by rejecting their chance to hold their representatives to account at the ballot box. All our antecedents suffered to gain the franchise, and there are millions of people around the world who suffer and die to this day over this basic democratic right.

    We live in a participatory democracy, so people who don’t participate need to be reminded that they are saying they don’t want democracy, and that they’re saying they don’t want to hold representatives to account for the decisions made in our name.

    Election day should be an annual public holiday, and I’m tempted to say voting should be compulsory. Either way everyone should vote, as those who don’t devolve their right to complain.

  • David Allen 18th Apr '12 - 6:30pm

    Just a belated comment that the question “Can we stop apologising for being in government yet?” should be put to John Rentoul.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Apr '12 - 9:48am

    Howard Hove

    You imply that even less people would have voted for proper PR. I don’t believe that would have been the case – the key problem with AV is that is such a miserable compromise that it does not even guarantee a more proportional result.

    Sure, but how much of the media commentary afer the referendum took the position “This result should be interpreted as a demand for a more thorough-going electoral reform than AV”? None whatsoever, so far as I can recall. The universal response was to interpret the referendum result as a rejection of ANY electoral reform and as an endorsement of the current electoral system. It was seen as I suggest it was seen – the people rejected even the smallest reform so there is no case at all for a larger reform.

    The point is that we could be using this to our advantage when people moan about us “propping up the Tories”. Instead of us going on about how wonderful it is to have power, which I find it incredible that anyone should still be suggesting seeing as it is what has been suggested since the coalition was formed and look how we have done in the polls since, we should instead by holding out the truth – that we have the government we have because that’s how peole voted 2010, they voted to endorse the system that made it the only viable government in 2011, so it’s most certainly not our ideal, but if it’s not what you want, don’t vote for it.

    It seems to me to be a contradiction to endorse the current electoral system or regard electoral reform as a silly sideline issue and at the same time moan bitterly about the current government we have. The current government is a result of the principle the defenders of FPTP say is so good about it – it strengthens the biggest party and weakens third parties, so leading to more decisive governments. It may not have brought us a majority Tory government in 2010 but it worked its effect enough so that something very close to it was the only viable option.

    The AV referendum could and SHOULD have been turned into a referendum on the government – “Do you like what the electoral system you have gave us, or would you prefer to change the system?”. So a “Yes” vote should have been seen as a vote against the government, yet many people saw it as a vote for the government and voted “No” on that basis.

    Again, this comes down to the Labour Party acting in an opportunist way rather than developing a coherent left strategy. A coherent left strategy would have endorsed electoral reform as a way of isolating the Tories and pushing them into a small right-wing rump. The opportunist strategy is happy with a system which makes many people feel they have no choice but to vote Tory, even though there’s much they dislike about the Tories, on the grounds many poeple vote Labour for similar reasons. I write this as someone who has lived and campaigned for the party for a long time in Labour-dominated areas, but who was brought up in a supposedly “true blue” Conservative area and retains family and friend links with that area. In my experience, the proportion of the popualtion in supposedly “true blue” areas who really like the Tories is surprisingly small, there’s a big group who dislike the urban/northern look and feel of Labour and only vote Tory on that basis. I believe that even AV in releasing them from being trapped in the mentality “got to voteTory to keep Labour out” would have created a much bigger effect than supposed. It’s a tragedy it was thrown away thanks to a bunch of people who could not look beyond voting “No” because they had been tricked into thinking that was a way of being nasty to Nick Clegg for “putting in the Tories”.

  • Matthew Huntbach

    Agree with all of that analysis, pretty much.

    The only thing I would add is that we all *know* how partisan and daft the Blunkett/Beckett tendency in the Labour Party is, and therefore their behaviour was hardly a surprise: ditto the dastardly work of the Tory No campaign in turning Clegg into their poster boy. Which is why I can’t believe the naivety of the Lib Dem leadership in accepting this referendum as a worthwhile concession – and the wider membership, collectively, have to take their share of the blame their meek acceptance of the coalition’s lousy terms, on this key issue and many others.

    Blaming Labour is too easy, and one has to give some credit to those (including Ed Miliband) who did the right thing by supporting AV. In terms of partisan advantage there was very little in it for them, after all.

    Never mind the media coverage and the ‘dead for a generation’ pronouncements – FPTP hasn’t gone away, and nor have its ridiculous distortions. And nor should reformers, though in my view the way to go is for an all-systems referendum, to really ventilate the issue, open up discussion and prevent the debate turning into an either/or that will send the undecided and poorly informed scurrying back towards the status quo. This has its counterpart, of course, in the kind of Labour-Tory forced choice that you are talking about,

    BTW I remember you from Sussex Uni, assuming you are the same guy. I was in NOLS back then, but remember secretly agreeing with you quite a lot. Ha!

  • Barry George 19th Apr '12 - 11:35pm

    “Can we stop apologising for being in Government yet ?”

    I don’t recall hearing any apologies from our members of parliament for this or any of the party’s actions in said Government.

    Maybe whomever it is that should stop apologising could step forward and inform the world that they have in fact stopped apologising so that we can retrospectively be informed that they were in the first case actually apologising for something!

    Considering the current public opinion of the party, an apology might not be a bad place to start.

    “Let’s all stop doing something that nobody was doing anyway!” , said the ostrich with its head in the sand…

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Apr '12 - 4:38am

    Howard Hove

    Much of the discussion above appears to assume that full coalition was the only option. Giving the Tories just enough rope would have been another. Too late now.

    Yes, it’s a point I’ve been making since the coalition was formed, and it’s been made by plenty of others whose memories go back to the 1974 general elections. A Tory minority government would have been on a winner either way. If things went well they could have gone to the country in another general election on that basis. If things went badly, they could have blamed it on the inability to govern properly due to not having a majority, and gone to the country asking to be given one. Were the people of this country going to swing back to Labour just a short time after throwing them out? No. Were the people of this country going to vote in increasing numbers for the Liberal Democrats to give them more bargaining power? Most certainly not. The story throughout the media, encouraged by both Labour and the Conservatives, would have been on how bad it is to have a government which is weak because it does not have a majority, and that’s all the fault of the Liberal Democrats just for existing. The Liberal Democrats were in no position to fight back. For one thing, we’d spent all our money in the May 2010 election. But the other thing, which the party leadership cannot admit but was a major factor – we emerged from the election on a downward trajectory. Our campaign was a flop. People started off feeling excited about us, mainly because many of them had only just become aware of us as a serious alternative to the other two, but it was clear as support dwindled from the peak it reached near the beginning of the campaign that the more they saw of us and our leader, they less they liked us. Had we fought a stealth campaign in which we quietly built up support locally out of the eyes of the media and emerged with a far better share than was expected, we would have been in a far better position to hold out and relish the threat of another general election coming soon. That would have been so even if we’d emerged with 23% as we did, but the media were putting us on, say, 18%.

    If the Liberal Democrats are to progress (or rather, to revive) we MUST come to appreciate just how badly we were served by “Cleggmania”. It was wrong for a whole host of reasons, and that’s even before one starts considering just what a poor leader the man is. Well, I at least warned of this during the leadership campaign. I warned so hard that people accused me of having some personal vindictive grudge against him. Well, not for the first time, how many now see the points I was making?

    The “supply and confidence” idea wouldn’t have worked, because to be strong enough for it to be a guarantee of stability it would actually have meant Liberal Democrats being forced to vote for every Tory policy the Tories or Labour chose to make an issue of confidence – so we’d have to vote for what we have voted for and worse, with no say in it. Labour would take a delight in tabling “no confidence” motions on Tory policies they knew would be most embarrassing for us to have to troop through the lobbies to support.

    So, this gets me back to where we started. I feel we had no real choice but to go into the coalition, but not in a way that involved looking, well Mark Valladares has accused me being insulting to him by using this word, but I mean the one that starts with s and then m and rhymes with rug. We needed to do it in a way that made it clear we were forced into it by circumstances, by the way people voted, and we were not happy with it. So, yes, we most certainly SHOULD have been apologising for it, though the basis of our apology should have been apologising for not winning enough votes for us to be able to do what we wanted. And we should, from day 1 of the coalition have been plotting our exit route. The exit route should have been planned so that the Tories stayed in for long enough to remind people what a Tory government is all about. I reckoned at the time about two years. I remember thinking this through and mentioning it to a few people at the interminable Greenwich count, when we were still waiting for our results to come through but it had become obvious we would have a Parliament where a Tory-led government was the only viable possibility. So, yes, as you say, giving them the rope. The pretext for ending the coalition needed to be on a populist grounds, something we knew the people would give us support for, and which had some logic to it. Well, we had the pretext – our party’s refusal to go along with the NHS reforms. Imagine Clegg had said “I agree with my party and the British public on this – we will not back this government if it carries on with these plans, we have swallowed too much Tory rubbish already, but we this is our limit”. I don’t think the public would have punished us for bringing down the government, I suspect we’d enter the general election caused with a good few extra % points in the polls.

    You remember me from Sussex – thanks for that – you’ll know from this I have a long record for making points which are appreciated by others (at least appreciated in public) only when it’s too late.

  • Apologise for being on government, certainly not, that’s what parties aim to do.

    Apologise for abandoning our instincts though, yes, and at time we even abandoned our common sense.

    We must see the coalition through, and then, I fear, we’ll have to realign liberal politics – the ‘Liberal Democrat’ brand has been too much damaged now, and the real rot is that the damage was done by our own.

  • John mc, why wait?

  • Robert (liberal) 23rd Apr '12 - 10:42am

    The question is how do the Liberal grow if we jump from one ship to another in coalitions, in Wales the Liberals and Plaid learned a massive lesson about going into coalition with Labour.

    Like it or not one day the coalition will end, and it will be a smaller party which will have to battle harder, the history books will show liberals were in coalition, not in power.

    In Wales I can see the Liberal fight Plaid for fourth place.

  • Helen Tedcastle 23rd Apr '12 - 12:53pm

    Quoting JohnMc : ‘We must see the coalition through, and then, I fear, we’ll have to realign liberal politics – the ‘Liberal Democrat’ brand has been too much damaged now, and the real rot is that the damage was done by our own.’

    Disagree. It’s not a matter of Liberal Democrat branding or marketing that is needed but a sober facing up to the ineptitude and naivety of our leaders regarding the manoeuvres of a very right-wing Tory party, which pretended in Opposition to be ‘changed’ and no longer nasty.
    We need to get back to our values and our principles and stop capitulating to massive ideological changes now ravaging public services.
    All three main party leaders are inexperienced and lack vision and could do with wise heads around them – not the Central London-based think-tank advisers, so-called strategists and ‘blue sky thinkers’, who do not live in the real world.

  • Robert (liberal)Apr 23 – 10:42 am……………, the history books will show liberals were in coalition, not in power…………

    Perhaps, but in the meantime, polls show the electorate believe “liberals are in collusion”..

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