How should we approach future coalitions?

If we do decide to take part in future Coalitions, one thing that does need to be resolved is how to approach them.  Make no bones about it – we were nearly annihilated.  Play it like that again, and we could be doomed to oblivion.  Yet if we choose never to go into Government again, we’re doomed to impotence.  Scylla and Charybdis had nothing on this.

Last time the voters viewed us as having “got into bed with the Conservatives” rather than partners in something different.  The Rose Garden set the image: a love-in rather than a business partnership. One with us seen as the weak partner: dominated rather than dominant.  This might elicit sympathy, but voters won’t flock to who they see as the victim.  They seek out strength in their leaders.  Consider how Labour portrayed Nick Clegg (unfairly) in “The Incredible Shrinking Man” in 2014’s European Elections.

We’ve had analyses on what went wrong.  Nick Harvey’s “After the Rose Garden” has detailed prescriptions and is well worth a read.  George Kendall posted ideas in the direction I was thinking, and Bill le Breton highlighted that a workable and successful approach already exists for hung Councils, hung Parliaments and hung Assemblies in “Life in the Balance”, by ALDC.

Things that come out again and again include making the transactional nature clear, exposing linkages with wins, losses and trade-offs.  Keeping your distance (an arrangement, not a marriage) makes it harder to portray you as weak and dominated.  

We must be seen to have strength, to be a partner rather than a prop.  That we are seen to be making something different from a Labour-dominated or Conservative-dominated Government, and partners in directing it.  We must show that a Coalition is something different.

Last time we came across as the flavouring on a Conservative meal.

In 2017, Corbyn, for all his flaws, came across as a strong option.  We lost half our remnant vote from 2015 in the churn.  While we gained from unhappy ex-Labour, ex-Conservative, and ex-Green voters, we lost over a million who voted for us in 2015.

Why? Was it that that we’d ruled out Coalition and could be portrayed as irrelevant?  Was it that we were such a small party now and not worth sticking with? Why did we lose people who’d stuck with us in the disaster of 2015?  Was it the negative aspects of the Progressive Alliance?  After all, for Labour, at least, that’s simply a flag of convenience to try to pick up anti-Tory votes they consider to be theirs by right, and we gifted them many votes while getting few back from them.

Fortunately, a Hung Parliament can increase our relevance, especially with the narrative that we’re increasing in size again.  We’ve exercised our independence and been talked about as relevant.  Any future “Progressive Alliance” should be limited to parties who sign up to delivering electoral reform, with no ifs or buts.  We do, however, need to make electoral reform not look like us being obsessed with something arcane and detached from everyday concerns, or simply in our own self-interests.

With whom can we go into Coalition in future?

That’s the wrong question – it defines us against others again, presupposes the options to be fundamentally Conservative or Labour Governments flavoured by us, and makes us the supplicants.  The question should be: who will go into Coalition with us?  We lay down our requirements, clearly and in advance.  For example:

“We will work practically and pragmatically with anyone who will work with us to follow realistic and transparent economic policies, protect the poorest and most vulnerable, provide the needed change to politics, and respect our red lines.  We don’t care what rosette they wore before the election: red, blue, green, or sky-blue pink with yellow dots.  It will be an arrangement to deliver competent governance and deliver our policies, it will be explicitly time-limited, and we will regularly review it.  It will not be a Labour Government or a Conservative Government propped up by us; it will be a Coalition Government, and that’s something different.”

* Andy Cooke is an ex-RAF Engineer and analyst who joined the Lib Dems after the Coalition. He has campaigned in the Richmond Park by-election, and in OxWAb and Bath in the 2017 General Election

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27 Comments

  • The simple answer is, we do NOT go into coalition at all. Do we never learn? Look at the European small parties who have tried this, Greens, FDP etc etc, they get hammered and it takes a long time to recover in any shape or form. There is nothing wrong with minority government.

  • Katharine Pindar 30th Jun '17 - 5:00pm

    Chance would be a fine thing, Andy. We could do with seeming more relevant, for a start. Fine that all 12 of our MPs turned up to vote for the amendment on the Queen’s Speech backing staying in the internal market and the customs union, but why wasn’t this OUR amendment? Calculation to show up the divisions in the Labour Party? That would have been shown anyway by Labour voting. I’d have liked to hear more about our involvement in the debate than that Tom Brake had started a sartorial revolution, which would have been more fun if a serious contribution had also been noted, and something else had been said on today’s Today.

    Helpful thoughts, anyway, Andy, thank you. Let’s hope our new internal presumed practical coalition of the chief whip, the retiring leader and the prospective leader will find ways to make the contributions of the twelve useful and heard in the days to come.

  • Tony Dawson 30th Jun '17 - 5:14pm

    This article is missing the section on how many angels we will count on our pinhead. The key thing is to start winning locally (and this does not have to be only from 2017 ‘near misses’ if the right candidates and team are in place. OF COURSE our vote fell in 2017 compared to 2015 and this was not because WE had ruled out coalition it was because the electorate had ruled out caring whether we were part of any coalition scenario – or caring.

    A good half of our current Westminster seats are presently held entirely because of one of two ‘special agendas’ which got them elected against the trend but may very well not be there to support the candidates concerned next time: Opposition to Referendum in Scotland and Brexit remain tendency in London/South East. There is work to do in these places to give our candidates a decent chance of survival in a future election on a wider agenda.

  • The dead easy answer:

    Sure, we’ll go into coalition: but we want at least one of the great offices of state and ministerial roles divided based on the vote share ratio of the two parties.

    Suddenly Labour and the Tories think “oh if we go into coalition they’ll ask for the Home Office” – and thus they cannot get through their own ideology. But we look perfectly reasonable: for us, coalition means we get real power.

  • David Evans 30th Jun '17 - 5:19pm

    Katharine is right. Corbyn sacks front benchers for for supporting staying in the Internal Market and Customs Union, and what do we get in the public section of LDV …

    How to approach coalitions (we need to get ourselves elected first)
    How to get an Identity (we’ve got one thanks)
    Wera’s speech (Well done Wera – how do we get more Lib Dems like her elected?)
    The latest Social Attitudes survey says (people aren’t voting for us but chose Jeremy instead. Now he has shown his true anti-EU colours what do we do?)
    Freshers week plans (but how do we get young people to notice that jeremy has betrayed their future?)

    Don’t get me wrong, each article is a good contribution to our understanding and future.

    But on the day Jeremy betrayed a generation where is Newshound, or the Voice, or anyone?

  • theakes: If we reject ever going in Coalition with anyone, what’s the point in even issuing a manifesto? Or having any policies? We should be seeking Government and power to implement our policies.

    Katharine: Fully agree – we need to become as relevant as we can. But in any future election, the question of Coalition will arise. It was brought up time and again to me on the doorsteps in OxWAb and in Bath – would we go into Coalition with the Tories? Or would we put Corbyn into Number Ten? We definitely need an answer – “We won’t seek Government” can work limited and in a local way, but not if we ever want to become nationally relevant again; we have to plan for success. Moreover, we need to get our answer into the public consciousness as early and as often as possible so we can if it’s acceptable, and, assuming we succeed again, we don’t end up alienating chunks of our voter base who decided we’d never support X or Y.

    Huw; I’d agree that we need a Great Office – and we need PR as well as a red line. We also need to prepare the ground for PR being seen as a sensible demand and not something arcane and self-serving; the longer that’s bedded in , the better (I’ve got some ideas on that as well 🙂 )

    George: Thanks 🙂

    David: True, but we need to look strategically as well as tactically. This is, as you note, just one element of what we need to be looking at. I’ve no doubt the team at LDV will come up with something on the Corbyn debacle as well but it takes time to write and edit articles.

  • paul barker 30th Jun '17 - 6:27pm

    I think we should make 2 simple conditions :
    that The PM should be a Libdem
    that all the Parties involved should be actively enthusiastic about a Program of major Reforms.
    The first condition would imply either that we were the largest Party involved or that the Coalition involved Parties of both Left & Right, each of which preferred us to each other.
    On the second condition I am not saying that everybody has to agree the details, just that all recognise that The UK needs major Reform & are ready to get on with it.
    As to when this might happen I not only have no idea, I dont even think the question is useful right now. My impression is that we have probably gone backwards since The Election but our potential is huge, we have to keep on hoping.

  • Mick Taylor 30th Jun '17 - 6:49pm

    We cannot expect to go from 12 seats to 326 in one go or even in several. As someone who probably won’t live to see it – or at best will be very much older – I can perhaps be more unemotional about it.
    This means that in the absence of PR any coalition has to implement some of our major policies. There can be no coalition again without legislation to implement STV in all elections. (not just PR thank you). No referendums, no ‘best endeavours’ just legislation. This would at least ensure that at the next election we got seats in proportion to our vote. (approx 48 in the last election)
    As to the rest, we have to have two lists: a must do without which we won’t deal and a larger shopping list of things we want, to be negotiated.
    In the absence of STV we would be mad to go into government again as part of any coalition, however bad a state the UK is in. We sacrificed our party for the country and the reward was being dumped. Sure, I and many others voted for that course of action, but with hindsight it was suicidal without STV. Accepting a referendum on AV was a wrongheaded policy and look where that ended up!
    We need to make clear well before any election what our stance is, otherwise we are doomed to repeat the mistakes we made in 2010.
    I agree with other commentators that the question is who will form a coalition with us, not with whom we will join.

  • I agree with Paul Barker. If we ever go into coalition at Westminster again it should only be if we are the largest party.

    We’ve had also had coalitions in the past 20 years in Cardiff, Edinburgh and they have never resulted in us improving our performance – in fact we’ve been annihilated in Wales and while there are green shots in Scotland it’s mainly due to benefiting from tactical unionist voting.

    Coalitions never benefit the smaller party and while for a few years you may get some policies into law it’s no good if you spend the next 50 years in the wilderness, having no influence whatsoever.

  • paul barker 30th Jun '17 - 7:16pm

    I see that I wasnt clear, I was envisaging The Libdems being the largest Party among those forming The Coalition, not the largest in The parliament, how big we would need to be would depend on how far The Big 2 fragment & how.
    At the moment, asking how we get from here to there is the point, not how long we might take.
    On that, I still think that opposing Brexit is our best bet.

  • Liam McKenna 30th Jun '17 - 7:19pm

    Katharine – I think there was a proposed ammendment by the Lib Dems on the single market, but John Bercow chose to table Ummuna’s ammendment instead of the Lib Dem one.

  • @ David Evans
    ‘How to get an Identity (we’ve got one thanks)’

    I take your overall point David, and I’m sure the articles you rightly request will appear. The line above though, a bit of a stretch don’t you think?

    Jeremy Corbyn is the one with a big bold vision for the country, which has proved popular for a lot of people.
    You have to enthuse people in order to mobilise and build on that popularity.
    We simply don’t.

    I’ve been contributing here for months, I rejoined the party recently after a gap of a year.
    I have no idea what we stand for or what we will eventually communicate to the electorate and neither do you, otherwise, we wouldn’t all be having these conversations.

    It’s no good quoting the preamble because it’s not in a language people use in everyday conversation and doesn’t appear to mean an awful lot to many people outside the party.

    I know it may seem a bit of a bore to people fond of political history, but it’s essential to have these conversations.
    We’re going to have to change to widen the appeal further than our 100,000 and 12 seats.

  • “We’ve had also had coalitions in the past 20 years in Cardiff, Edinburgh and they have never resulted in us improving our performance”

    Not actually true. Vote share in 2003 was up for the party in both Scotland and Wales. In Scotland the party gained Edinburgh South as a constituency seat (though had no net gain as it then lost the Lothians list seat)

  • Paul Pettinger 30th Jun '17 - 8:02pm

    The Progressive Alliance is not a Labour campaign. It’s not supported by the Labour leadership. It’s a Rebel Alliance and pursued by a wide range of people of differing affiliations who most of all want a more compassionate, equal and sustainable society.

    The campaign has helped us win the Richmond by-election (which massively boosted our credibility with the media). On June 8th the Greens stood down in a number of seats for us, and in two of those (Westmorland and Lonsdale + OXWAB) our majority was less than half that of the Green vote in those seats back in 2015. Far from making us an irrelevance, the campaign has helped us in win three seats in six months, including dodging a potential banana skin of having our Leader lose their seat. The Progressive Alliance is an inheritor to earlier campaigns, such as that of the widespread anti-Conservative tactical voting in 1997, which John Curtice and Michael Stead calculate gave Labour an extra 15 to 21 seats and us an extra 10 to 14.

    Had there been more time, more arrangements could have been negotiated with Greens. In some seats there is also potential to use any future Green endorsement to further refine and improve our Labour squeeze messages. There is a lot of untapped potential the future, if trust and links between people from different parties can carry on being built.

    In regards to Labour, in 1997 a covert non aggression pacts was arranged, while both parties stood down in Tatton, so helping raise the profile of Tory sleaze. There may be similar opportunities to better coordinate anti-Conservative feeling and embarrass the Tories. An opportunity was missed to highlight Conservative underfunding of the NHS this year when both Lab and the Lib Dems did not stand down in favour of the National Health Action candidate in Surrey South West against Jeremy Hunt. More effective and deeper cooperation may also be possible where sufficient common ground can be found between local candidates and campaigns.

  • Jane Ann Liston 30th Jun '17 - 8:36pm

    Hwyel – and I think we also gained Dunfermline in 2003, though again lost out on a list seat.

  • Joseph Bourke 30th Jun '17 - 8:49pm

    Historically, coalitions and minority governments have not been unusual in the UK. Britain had 20 governments in the 20th century.. Of these, five were coalitions and five were minority governments. Only 50% of these governments were the “traditional” single-party majority government that Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system is often deemed to favour.

    The old Liberal party almost always served in a coalition, initially with Parnell’s Irish Party and after the Great War with Conservative administrations. All six coalition governments in the last 120 years have involved the Liberal and Conservative parties.The most prominent was the National Government of 1931 to 1940. There were multi-party coalitions during both world wars.

  • Watch the DUP in coalition, they will give you a master class of how you do it. Hint get as much as you can for your voters and make the other party look weak; a bit like the Tories did to the Lib Dems in coalition.

  • Martin Land 30th Jun '17 - 9:36pm

    With a firm NO

  • Jane Ann Liston
    Dunfermline was actually 2006.

  • Andy: ‘Why did we lose people who’d stuck with us in the disaster of 2015?’
    I don’t think there is one answer. But I don’t think it was all about us. Voters were repeatedly told by the Tories that the GE was ‘May v Corbyn’ and all other parties and politicians were irrelevant. I think a lot of people took that to heart. All those predictions of a Tory landslide and gains in Wales even had me wondering – briefly – if I should hold my nose and vote Labour, just this once.

  • Jenny Barnes 1st Jul '17 - 9:47am

    paul pettinger>
    “An opportunity was missed to highlight Conservative underfunding of the NHS this year when both Lab and the Lib Dems did not stand down in favour of the National Health Action candidate in Surrey South West against Jeremy Hunt.”

    The SW surrey party agreed to stand a candidate if Labour did, and if not, not. A democratic decision. Labour decided to stand a candidate – and to sack their activists who had been working for the PA. So I think we can be pretty clear who missed the opportunity. Anyway, despite the well known problems in the NHS, Teflon Jeremy had more than 50% of the vote, so it’s unlikely that a different tactical approach would have unseated him.

  • Richard Fagence 1st Jul '17 - 10:05am

    A previous post mentions Freshers’ Week events and there is another post by Vicky Nevin today. I happen to believe that these offer an opportunity for all members to offer help to our Liberal Youth colleagues and have contacted her to offer mine. I’m 71 in a month’s time.

    As to coalitions, I agree with those who say ‘on our terms or not at all’. A great office of state such as Home Secretary or Chancellor or we don’t play. Much as I like and admire Nick and the work and effort he put in, Deputy Prime Minister isn’t a great office of state. Think of John Prescott.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Jul '17 - 10:22pm

    @Mick Taylor

    ” We sacrificed our party for the country and the reward was being dumped.”

    As one who voted for Coalition in Birmingham, I never voted for such a ‘sacrifice’ and believe it was largely if not wholly unnecessary. The Party was sacrificed by a small core of ‘Leaders’ which we mere mortals might have expected to at least have appointed someone to look after the Party’s interests and projection/identity while they were personally far too busy off playing ( to some good as well as some cataclysmic bad) at government. With one or two notable exceptions, the wider Parliamentary Party and the National Executive both failed completely to hold these people to account and just sat around in circles muttering a mantra of “things can only get better!” with the resulting 50 year knock-back.

  • John Littler 2nd Jul '17 - 7:49pm

    Theakes – The German FDP were in power in coalition for decades, with both the SPD and the CDU. They did fall below the 5% threshold but are coming back strongly now.

    Completely running certain government departments and owning those issues might be better than what happened with the Home Office’s ministerial clashes.

  • David Pocock 3rd Jul '17 - 9:20am

    Just don’t seem like you have gone blue is my opinion. Have the odd public spat, manufacture one if nessessary. Find a way to put a stamp on the work we do. This is a lib dem policy being actioned not a Tory one. When the Tories do something we label it their idea.

    Better idea might be a confidence and supply deal. Seems like the larger party suffers in them.

    Finally we need to remember that the coalition was the best government of my life time. Before it was brown “saving the world” and after it was Cameron. We can offer criticism fairly on how we governed but still, we have an equal part of what many voters consider a good government and a vital one. We could easily have ended up a bankrupted country.

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