Civil liberties and social justice: the stumbling blocks to a future coalition?

One of the themes that a number of journalists decided to pursue during last week’s Lib Dem conference was the possibility of a 2015 election outcome which leaves the door open to an arrangement with either Labour or the Conservatives. The LDV team has taken the bait: Stephen has reminded us of the challenges of forming a coalition with either party in 2015, and Joe has warned of the dangers of an equidistance which seeks simply to slit the difference between Labour and the Conservatives.

But amidst the discussions of the politics and the personalities, the one thing that is often neglected in such speculation is policy. One of the reasons that a coalition with the Conservatives was achievable in 2010 was because the parties found it easier to put together a coalition agreement. On deficit reduction, tax, education, civil liberties and even political reform, the parties reached compromises that both could live with relatively easily and quickly.

Meanwhile the Labour negotiating team wouldn’t even abandon ID cards.

There will of course be many tricky policy areas in any 2015 negotiations, but it seems to me there are two broad areas that could act as particular stumbling blocks with either party.

While Ed Miliband has certainly changed much of Labour’s offering to the electorate since 2010, the one area where there has been no progress is on civil liberties. The party seems as wedded to authoritarianism as it was in government, with prominent front-benchers like Yvette Cooper frequently to be found attacking the government on civil liberties issues from the right.

Here’s what home office minister Jeremy Browne told the New Statesman a couple of weeks ago:

The Conservatives may be a magnetic force pulling the Lib Dems away from a purer form of liberalism but it’s not true that if we were in coalition with Labour, it would represent some easy, liberal utopia. There would be a much bigger gap to bridge to try to accommodate the authoritarian instincts of the Labour Party.

To some that might be a surprising statement, but the authoritarian proposals the Liberal Democrats have had to resist or water down from the Conservatives in government are nothing compared to the many, many things Labour actually did while in power.

When it comes to negotiating a second coalition deal with the Tories, the biggest area of difficulty will surely be over social justice.

After five years of welfare cuts and tax rises, with all of the low-hanging fruit well and truly harvested, the Lib Dems will clearly want to see a different set of priorities in the next parliament. Further tax cuts for the low paid might not be a major stumbling block, but how to fund them certainly will. Whether any further welfare cuts target the universal handouts so beloved of Labour and thus far protected by the Tories will clearly be another.

Given the likelihood of a Labour-Lib Dem deal including a mansion tax, the Tories would be placed under enormous pressure — on one side by the desire to stay in government, and on the other from the people they are currently extracting campaign donations from on the promise of resisting such a tax. And given welfare is likely to be a big theme of the Conservative’s election messaging, the desire to go further — restricting housing benefit for under-25s, for example — will also be strong, but is likely to be resisted by the Lib Dems.

There are some — even in the pluralistic Lib Dems — who think that thinking about and discussing compromises in advance of coalition negotiations is a step too far. Yet given the clear challenges facing all the parties in any coalition negotiations, it is likely to make the job of forming a government easier and happier for all involved. And whichever of the two main parties does think now about the likely areas of contention is also more likely to actually end up in government.

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Agreed. Overcoming the Labour party’s authoritarian instincts is the biggest stumbling block to any future cooperation.

  • Don’t forget that the Tories were ready for coalition negotiations in 2010. Apparently Oliver Letwin knew the Lib Dem manifesto better than most Lib Dems. Labour hadn’t thought about it and as a result were rabbits in the headlights when it came to actual negotiations (albeit the numbers would never have worked on Lib-Lab in 2010.)

    If we are in discussions with the Tories again, the environment and Europe are likely to be battlegrounds – particularly as the Tories themselves are split on both issues. i’d see Labour giving us a hard ride on the deficit (don’t see how we can back down with the stronger economy tag) and also transport issues where they are keener on a 3rd runway at heathrow than HS2.

  • A Social Liberal 26th Sep '13 - 12:43pm

    Oh dear, oh dear.

    We are in a coalition that has tried to bring in the snoopers charter and secret courts, and our partners are even now wittering on about getting rid of the Human Rights Act. Labour does not have a better record.

    We are probably going to have to deal with one or the other of them so all we can realistically do is make civil liberties/social justice red line issues in a future parliament.

  • Surely it was irrelevant how prepared Labour were in 2010: a Lib Dem/Labour coalition was impossible because the two parties together didn’t have a majority.

    The Lib Dem choice in 2010 wasn’t ‘coalition with Tories’ or ‘coalition with Labour’ it was ‘coalition with Tories’ or ‘have another election’.

    And the choice in 2015 is likely to be the same, though possibly with Labour substituted for the Tories.

    That’s why people asking the Lib Dems, ‘who would you go into coalition with after the next election?’ are asking the wrong question. It’s incredibly unlikely that the Lib Dems will have a choice of parrties to go into coalition with.

    The question people should be asking the Lib Dems is, ‘Are you prepared to provoke another general election straight after the next one, if the only party with which you could form a viable coalition does not meet your demands?’

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 26th Sep '13 - 3:47pm

    Personally I relish being in a Party of Coalition that undoes the damage that the Tories have forced through whilst in power.

    A Labour-Lib Dem Coalition I feel could be amazingly progressive with regarding to tackling social inequality and re-establishing civil liberties.

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 26th Sep '13 - 4:24pm


    What leads you to believe that Labour will be any less authoritarian as part of a future coalition than they were while in government?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 26th Sep '13 - 9:36pm

    Russian, that would be the same Labour Party who introduced the Work Capability Assessment and wanted to lick people up for 40 days without charge.

    Nick’s assessment is fair. We also have to factor in web snooping which both Labour & Tories are desperate to enact.

    I think we also have to factor in that both Labour & Conservatives might play hardball to avoid forming a coalition & grab power back for themselves in a second election,

  • “the authoritarian proposals the Liberal Democrats have had to resist or water down from the Conservatives in government are nothing compared to the many, many things Labour actually did while in power.”

    I think this is a fair point, but we are not comparing apples with apples. We do not know what they would have tried to do in power alone. We also don’t know what Labour would have tried to introduce if they had required Lib Dem votes in the last parliament.

    For me a plague on both their houses and a slightly less deadly disease on the Lib Dems for allowing secret courts.

    At risk of being flippant on a serious subject……
    I didn’t object to the risk of being “licked up”, although it seems a shame not to lick down again and 40 days is probably a bit too long…

    The serious point is that is where I would expect the Lib Dems to have some red lines. Unfortunately these were not there for secret courts but if a second opportunity arises I would expect that lesson learnt. I would expect a gulf of distance between either party and the Lib Dems on these matters unless there is a road to Damascus type of conversion, and that is not likely.

  • A Social Liberal 26th Sep '13 - 10:31pm

    I must agree Steve. Being licked up for 40 days would be somewhat wearing. Perhaps it’s a new way of gaining a conferssion.

    I’ll get my coat

  • Politics is not just about policy and beliefs, it’s also cultural and I am instinctively Liberal with a big L. I’m afraid there is something terribly authoritarian and bossy about Labour – even in their general demeanour there’s a ‘we know best’ talking down approach. ‘We know what’s best for those poor people’ , ‘we know what’s best for those immigrants’, ‘we know what’s best for those alleged criminals’ – and it’s usually a mix of populist play to the gallery reactionary bollocks which liberals must resist for everyone’s sake

  • Ian Hurdley 27th Sep '13 - 8:10am

    It is obvious with hindsight that we must avoid undeliverable promises in 2015, but we should certainly be spelling out ahead of time what would be our non-negotiable demands of a coalition partner. As Jim has pointed out the fact of a hung parliament does not lead inevitably to a coalition. We have the benefit now of having demonstrated that we are not afraid of coalition government, and can see it through even when it is uncomfortable. But if our fundamental requirements can not be guaranteed we are prepared to return to the Opposition benches. If we do so though, voters must be able to see that we do so on principle, and not, for instance, because we are crypto-Tories who won’t talk seriously to Labour.

  • Ian Hurdley – us talking seriously to Labour, requires first that they wish to talk seriously to us. Theysy wish to sound out other coalition parties or try minority government

  • before anyone mentioned being licked up I was thinking that slit the difference sounded excessively violent…

  • I think we are kidding ourselves if we believe we will be part of a future coalition. First, people do not vote for coalitions. Second, I think that we are on track for an absolute Labour majority. The main thing that would change this … Scotland voting to become independent of the rest of the UK. I do not relish either of these scenarios.

  • @John Innes — it is, indeed, extremely unlikely, but then the outcome of the 2010 election was extremely unlikely, and it’s obviously better to be prepared for unlikely eventualities than to be caught on the hop. The assumption seems to be that the polls will tighten considerably as 2015 approaches; which may or may not happen, and is in any case dependent on events beyond the control of any party. If the election were held today, Labour would almost certainly win (even if it got a minority of votes!) but obviously the election is not being held today, unless I fell asleep like La Belle au Bois and missed a good deal.

  • I recognise that the last Labour government was authoritarian and that the Labour party is authoritarian and not Liberal, but the Conservative party is authoritarian as well. There is often an argument that as both the Labour party and Conservative party agree on a policy when one is in government and the other isn’t that they could work together if we said we were not supporting it. I don’t believe recent history supports this and so we can ensure that if either of the authoritarian parties has an authoritarian policy we can ensure it doesn’t get included in any new coalition agreement and what we don’t allow it to happen (like we have allowed secret courts and are allowing the balance of probabilities test to replace the beyond reasonable doubt test for the replacements for ASBOS). Therefore Nick Thornsby is incorrect to imply that only social justice will be a problem with the Conservatives and the problem with Labour will be authoritarianism. Authoritarianism could be a problem with both depending on what they put in their manifestos.

    Tpfkar identifies other areas that could be problematic.

  • Robert Wootton 29th Sep '13 - 8:57pm

    If we want Britain to be a country of Liberty, Freedom and Fairness then the Liberal Democrats need to win a landslide victory at the next General Election.

    I think the whole relationship between the citizen and the state/government needs to be clearly specified. The responsibilities of the state to the individual; and the responsibilities of the individual to the state.

    In religion, it is said that one must have a personal relationship with god.

    In politics, I think that the relationship should be between the individual citizen and the state. By this I mean the taxation and benefit system should recognise only the individual citizen. It is not the business of the state whether its citizens are single or in a relationship. Any discrimination by the state is bound to create anomalies and the government has to create a bureaucratic cats cradle of costly red tape and regulation.

  • @ Robert Wootton
    I hate the Blairite idea that individuals have responsibilities to the state because these often interfere with the individual’s freedom and liberty. However I recognise that we have a responsibility to pay taxes, to obey good laws, to defend the country if called upon to do so and take part in civil disobedience against bad laws. Also we have some responsibilities to our family. However I will need persuading that individuals have any other responsibilities to the state.

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