It’s not just this Government that’s unpopular: it’s the idea of Coalition. Here’s what Lib Dems need to do about that.

There are many arguments the Lib Dems are winning in government. But there is one very big debate we’re currently on the losing side of with the public: that coalition government is capable of working. And it’s not surprising that voters are unpersuaded given we Lib Dems look a whole lot less than convinced by the experience.

The known knowns of Coalition

Let’s get two pieces of mitigation out of the way:
1) Coalition government is always tougher on the junior party: we lack the democratic mandate and therefore the strength in numbers in ministerial posts to have the impact we’d like.
2) Lib Dems got into government for the first time in our modern history at the worst time possible: in the midst of the worst global economic crisis in memory.
This much we know.

We know too that a significant number of members and 2010 Lib Dem voters simply couldn’t stomach the idea of the party forming a coalition with the Tories, regarding it as betrayal even though it was an option Nick Clegg explicitly ruled-in well before the election. This was the group which saw pluralism as nothing other than a synonym for a Lib/Lab pact.

Another tranche of members and voters deserted the party over the leadership’s U-turn on tuition fees or the messy NHS Reform Bill. These were the ‘red-liners’, the this-far-but-no-further group who are only ever one disappointment away from tearing up their membership cards. And then there’s the ‘general lapsed’, those folk who signed-up to support the Lib Dems in a moment of ‘yes, we can do this together!’ headiness, and who have come to realise what a despondent grind party politics can be. Again, this much we know.

The 3 Lib Dem coalition camps

Which leaves those of us who are, well, left. We fall into three broad camps, I think, some probably shape-shifting between each of them depending on what day it is, which I’m going to caricature as follows:

  • There’s the minority (say 15-20%) who are Coalition enthusiasts, believers both in the principle and reality of what the Lib Dems are getting out of government and reckon liberalism is a net winner. (Though hopefully none use the dread Twitter hash-tag, #Coalicious).
  • Then there’s a second minority (say 25-30%) who simply cannot wait for “this bloody farce of a forced marriage” to be over and done with so that the party can either get back to principled impotence opposition, or try and cut a more comfortable deal with Labour.
  • And then there’s the bare majority (50-60%), the grudging realists, who believe the party had little choice in May 2010, who accept there’s a few good things we’ve got out of Coalition but think we’re too often outmanoeuvred by those sharp Tories along the way, and who are sceptically open to a further post-2015 agreement (finger crossed, next time with Labour to even things up a bit).

You can argue with my caricatures, argue with my guesstimate proportions of how many members fall into which camp. I think most would accept, though, that open and active support for the Coalition is a minority pursuit within the Lib Dems.

What the public makes of the idea of coalition

I realise, of course, there’s a difference between supporting the actions of “this Coalition” and supporting the idea of “a coalition”. But I’m not sure the public has bought into that distinction. A Populus poll in the summer showed that 65% agreed with the statement: ‘Britain being run by a coalition between parties rather than by a single party with an overall majority has made government in this country weaker’. Just 23% disagreed.

For Lib Dem pluralists who believe strong, effective government springs from cross-party working, starting from where we agree rather than where we disagree, this is a depressingly overwhelming margin against that very concept. For Tory and Labour strategists, that poll shows exactly what they want to see: a public rejection of coalition politics, a return to the simplicity of strong, single-party rule. I don’t want us to play into their hands.

Reclaiming Coalition’s virtues

There are two imperatives facing Lib Dems: both the leadership and the membership. First, we have to demonstrate clearly what it is the Lib Dems stand for, repair the attrition which a couple of years’ compromises have wrought and which a further two years’ compromise will bring. As I’ve argued before, these should be based on cleaning up the economy and cleaning up our politics.

But then, secondly — and just as importantly in the long-term — we need to make strongly the case for coalition, not just as a one-off experiment which we cannot wait to be terminated, but as a better way of governing for the long-term. This requires the leadership to continue staking out Lib Dem distinctiveness within the Coalition, as, for example, we saw again in this week’s autumn statement, when Nick Clegg openly dissented from George Osborne’s dismissal of a mansion tax. As John Kampfner has described this differentiation strategy: ‘What has been found to work is when, publicly but politely, one leader says: “We advocated A, they advocated B, but we agreed to settle on C.”‘

Yet we also need to recognise that such a ‘splitting the difference’ approach to Coalition is not the way we will persuade the British public that coalition is itself a better, stronger, more effective way of governing this country. I don’t think that’s as hard as it may seem (notwithstanding the inevitable hostility of the British news media).

The last (only) two Prime Ministers to win outright Commons majorities in the last 20 years — John Major and Tony Blair — successfully persuaded the British people that they could combine economic competence with social justice. I cannot see either David Cameron or Ed Miliband successfully making that pitch in May 2015: the Tories are seen to be hard-hearted, Labour to be mushy-brained. There’s only one viable way the next government has a chance of getting the balance right — and that’s if the Lib Dems remain right at its heart.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Liberal Neil 7th Dec '12 - 9:09am

    An interesting argument, Stephen, and I think your three broad groups of members is probably about right. I think you are perhaps a little hard on some who have left though, on some issues the leadership handled things so badly that they exacerbated the impact.

    I guess that makes me a ‘grudging realist’, if a slightly happier one after our excellent by-election victory last night 🙂

    I agree with you that we have to find ways to demonstrate that Coalition has brought some benefits and that part of that message has to be about the economy. We probably can’t win the argument that we’ve vastly improved it but we may win the argument that it would have been a lot worse otherwise.

    I don’t agree that we should concentrate on the ‘cleaning up politics’ line. We lost the referendum, Clegg reappointed Laws to the Cabinet and we have MPs renting their flats to each other. It won’t be credible. In any event it isn’t what the next election will be about.

    Our initial failure was going along with the ‘Reeves’ three stage strategy, starting with the ‘love in’.

    We should have much more consistent from the off, as you suggest making it clear that we have different views from the Tories but that we are compromising with them for the good of the country and in line with the electorate’s verdict.

    In my view the best chance we have of improving our position, and in turn change some views on the Coalition, is to identify what we believe are our most appealling acheivements to those who might vote for us, hammer them home repeatedly, and build the next manifesto around doing even more in the same direction.

    I’d go with: Fairer Taxes; Investing in our children’s future; and, Creating green jobs.

    Happily this fits three of the four key promises on the front of the last manifesto and they are also issues that appeal to both our base vote and soft voters of both the other parties.

  • mike cobley 7th Dec '12 - 9:17am

    Stephen, there is a subdivision amongst ‘bloody farce’ minority whose stance goes like this – the all-in, up-to-our-necks coalition deal was a grotesque mistake that has forced us to support policies which, in opposition, we would have denounced with righteous fury. The deal that could have been made is one restricted to policy areas dealing with the central areas of finance and banking, with a restricted ministerial involvement, and with a restricted time period of about 2 years which is ample time to see if a government’s approach is working. That deal I could have gritted my teeth and gone along with – all the other Tory bolt-ons (NHS, education & welfare ‘reform’, planning reform, all the usual Tory baggage of privilege and elitism) would have had to face a straight debate in the House without the guaranteed backing of the Liberal Democrats, which would have been a far more honest way to govern the country.

  • Derek A Collins 7th Dec '12 - 9:25am

    Stephen Tall’s article is patronising and dismissive of all those ‘ Lib Dem voters simply couldn’t stomach the idea of the party forming a coalition with the Tories, regarding it as betrayal ‘, an attitude I have seen duplicated recently across the Lib Dem leadership.

    Despite the blustering about how the LibDems in coalition have held the Tories back from their worst excesses, they are pushing through polices that Thacher didn’t even dare dream of. The people who are at the sharp end of those policies are the disabled, the long term unemployed and other people on benefits of various kinds. The people who caused the problem in the first place (the Tories’ chums in the banking and finance industries) remain unpunished and free to continue their disastroius policies and practices.

    Where is the evidence, apart from a few insignificant, peripheral examples, that the LibDems are genuinely making a difference? I have asked NIck Clegg these questions directly and he has not deigned to answer me.

    Has Liberalism really moved so far that I have to reconsider my allegiance to the party? For this is what I am facing

  • “The deal that could have been made is one restricted to policy areas dealing with the central areas of finance and banking, with a restricted ministerial involvement, and with a restricted time period of about 2 years which is ample time to see if a government’s approach is working”

    If this was the deal that we had done, we would (I guess) now be leaving the government because insufficient progress had been made on the economic front ; but if we had had ministerial responsibility in this area and in this area only, we would be seen both by our political opponents and by the country as a whole to be walking away from office with our tails between our legs, because policies with which we had been intimately involved had not (so far) worked.

    The proper course to follow is in fact the one that we have adopted : to sit out the Coalition’s short term difficulties and to remain in government until the policies developed by us and our Coalition partners can be seen to have worked.

    As to “restricted ministerial involvement”, some of the very best results of our participation in the present Coalition have come from the work of ministers such as Steve Webb and Lynne Featherstone who have not been positioned in the ministries involved with the economy, and one of the really good things about the Coalition is that it has enabled LIb Dem MPs (and LD peers) to have actual ministerial experience in many areas of government.

  • mike cobley 7th Dec '12 - 10:18am

    quote – “The proper course to follow is in fact the one that we have adopted : to sit out the Coalition’s short term difficulties and to remain in government until the policies developed by us and our Coalition partners can be seen to have worked.”

    Awesome reply, Hugh, must say. So, given that you are quite happy to stay on course, then certain side-effects like the appalling injustice suffered by disabled claimants made to endure the ATOS work capability assessment, the authoritarian mandatory workfare now being forced on JSA claimants, the growth in homelessness, the growth in people turning to food banks, the eye-popping increases in utility prices (while regulators are seemingly asleep at the wheel), the de-democratisation of the education system – all these things your are presumably either comfortable with, or prepared to see them as a price worth paying.

    But what are we paying for? A Liberal Britain? Is that what Cameron/Osborne are building for you? Why would they help the Clegg leadership build a Liberal nation when they could be building a Tory nation? Oh, wait…

  • If we pulled out of the coalition what guarantee is there the next government would be any better? Easy to say we should wash our hands of it but there is a high risk that if we do that a majority Tory government will be returned which will make the situation even worse. Are those advocating leaving the coalition prepared to accept responsibility for that eventuality?

  • mike cobley 7th Dec '12 - 10:38am

    “…there is a high risk that if we do that a majority Tory government will be returned.” Really? According to what polls?

  • Mike, you know as well as I do that current polling is practically meaningless. When there is a general election imminent and minds are focused on what the alternatives really are and when tactical voting comes into play things can and do change very quickly. The truth is we don’t know what the result of a snap general election would be but the chance of a Tory majority is at least as high as a Labour majority or some form of Lab/Lib coalition. So will you answer the question? If you get your way, and a Tory majority is returned, are you prepared to accept responsibility?

  • mike cobley 7th Dec '12 - 10:55am

    Hmm. I absolutly do not agree that chances between Labour and Tories are even – but I`ll go along with yr posited situation, and say yes, I would take that responsibility. This ‘oh, but it would be worse without us’ is akin to being kneed in the groin 5 days out of 7 and saying that otherwise it would be 7 days a week. It is still an insupportable outrage – in fact, you could go as far as saying that Libdem coalition support conceals the true viciousness of the Tory party and makes them more acceptable, and even normalises the vile policies they get to inflict on the country anyway. Which is the case WRT the ATOS-wca ongoing gauntlet of sadism – while that cruel carnival grinds on and the Libdems keep schtumm about it that amounts to a process of normalisation. At which my conscience rebels.

  • Richard Swales 7th Dec '12 - 11:08am

    I think certainly Labour’s current ratings are based on quite a cynical kind of tactical ambiguity, of “Well actually we are really responsible too but of course we wouldn’t actually be cutting anything at all if we were in power” which I probavbly think and certainly hope will disintegrate under the scrutiny of an election campaign. I hope it not just because I don’t particularly like Labour, but also because if it is seen to work for them then it will become the model for opposition politics for other parties too in the future.

  • I would say there is no chance of a Majority Tory Government if another election was called, and the Tories are themselves well aware of that, hence the reason there is not much call for it from the Tories.

    The Tories know they would lose an election because

    A) The country is furious about what has happened with the NHS, especially when we are now seeing headlines about the waiting times rising, staffing shortages et.c e.t.c
    B) They are furious that the governments economical plans have and will fail and we now see austerity and further cuts up to 2018 and beyond, A double dip recession and possibility of a triple dip.
    C) The country is furious that yet again it is the least well off and the vulnerable who are being hit yet again the hardest with more cuts
    D) look at the Tories fear of Nadine Dorris, IF the Tories has not had such an appalling By-election results with UKIP coming in 2nd place out of 3, had it not been for these by-elections Cameron would have got shot of Nadine in a heart beat, but because up the up rise in UKIP support, the fear was she would join UKIP and become their first MP in Government.
    E) As more and more stories emerge of child poverty increasing and the ever increasing demand on food banks, the British public will once again regain their sense of compassion for the vulnerable and be furious with the government for the scapegoating and stigmatising of the vulnerable.

    The Tories are a dead duck when the next election is called, so they are not going to be in any hurry to call it, especially since their tactics is to use Liberal Democrats as fodder to shoulder as much as the pain.

  • “Then there’s a second minority (say 25-30%) who simply cannot wait for “this bloody farce of a forced marriage” to be over and done with so that the party can either get back to principled impotence opposition, or try and cut a more comfortable deal with Labour.”

    You think being impotence in government is better than being impotence in opposition?

  • @John
    “Easy to say we should wash our hands of it but there is a high risk that if we do that a majority Tory government will be returned which will make the situation even worse. Are those advocating leaving the coalition prepared to accept responsibility for that eventuality?”

    I can’t believe that argument is still being trotted out. The last four VI opinion polls give Labour an average lead of 12 % to 13% over the Tories. That is landslide material.

    “Mike, you know as well as I do that current polling is practically meaningless. ”

    Really? According to which evidence exactly? VI opinion polls are actually quite accurate at predicting general elections.

  • I’m with Mike, particularly over things like ATOS. Try having a chronic illness or two and facing assessment by them! When you are ill with cancer, or several other diseases, you need to concentrate all your efforts on getting better, not wasting your energy on worrying if you’ll have enough to live on next week. Let alone the gradual erosion of allowances.
    I’m glad we pushed back some of labour’s civil liberties treasons, and no doubt there are people who appreciate the tax savings, but it’s not enough. I have a good MP who is worth voting for in his own right, but as regards the national party, unless we do a far better job of selling ourselves to the electorate we may as well go on holiday at the next election.

  • Charles Beaumont 7th Dec '12 - 12:09pm

    I think there are two issues not being addressed here: the first is the high chance of a Labour overall majority at the next election. They have the old boundaries stacked in their favour and even if they slip from current polling, there isn’t going to be an economic boom between now and 2015. What this means is that the statistical probability of a LibLab coalition is far lower than a ConDem. Labour doesn’t need us, and their deep cynicism on things such as AV or the EU proves that. Second is Europe, long before today’s Economist front cover I’ve been arguing that this will be one of the big questions in 2015. Will we be the only party actively promoting EU membership? How will that play out in a future coalition debate? For how long will we be able to sit alongside the Tories if they are stumbling for the Brixit?

  • One thing, I suspect might help the Lib Dem’s is if they stopped acting as PRs for Conservative policies. Danny Alexander should not be on TV discussing Osbourne’s budget. Let a Tory do it, Also, Mr Clegg needs to act like the Deputy PrimeMinister, not the actual Prime Minister’s spokesman. You cannot have a distinctive voice if you are the public face of mostly Conservative policy decisions. Contrary to the old maxim, not all publicity is good publicity

  • Yes coalitions can work. However,
    ~ The (Good) coalition, is one that hopefully, blends and compromises, opposed and polarised thinking, into an acceptable middle ground, of broadly satisfactory social policies.
    ~ The (Bad) coalition, is one that might give undue validity, (by weight of coalesced numbers), to policies that a section of voters, would not have otherwise chosen, and indeed would consider extreme.
    So which of these two coalitions, do you think we have we got?
    Also bear in mind the economy. Middle ground or centre ground politics, appears to work best in a thriving economy. But we’ve been told, (as if we needed to be!), that the economy is not going to come good at least until 2017.
    When the economy is good, Good Coalitions are much easier to pull together. When the economy is not so good, as can be seen in Greece right now, there is always the risk of a Bad Coalition forming, ( and giving electoral legitimacy), to extreme left or right thinking.
    If you believe that you are in a (broadly), good coalition, then you should stick with it. But if you feel you have mistakenly entered, or are sliding into, a bad coalition, you owe it to the voters to ‘Get the Hell out of Dodge’.

  • Martin Lowe 7th Dec '12 - 12:34pm

    Early on in this term of office, I read an article that made an analogy regarding a lot of blue paint and a small amount of orange paint.

    The question with regards to the business of government was do you (a) have one big painting that’s predominantly blue but with one orange corner; or (b) blend them together?

    “Blending” policies to form a party that is in tune with the national voting pattern is intellectually a better way of progressing, but when it comes round to selling your achievements to the electorate it becomes a lot harder when there are few positives and a lot of negatives.

  • “The question with regards to the business of government was do you (a) have one big painting that’s predominantly blue but with one orange corner; or (b) blend them together?”

    Probably the worst option is the impression of blue with yellow streaks.

  • David Allen 7th Dec '12 - 1:14pm

    “the this-far-but-no-further group who are only ever one disappointment away from tearing up their membership cards.”

    “those folk who signed-up to support the Lib Dems in a moment of ‘yes, we can do this together!’ headiness”

    Hey, what a brilliant strategy for regaining the support of all those many people who have deserted. Slag them off! Sneer at them! Make it clear you have no understanding of their views and nil sympathy! When you have made them resentful enough, they’ll all start flocking back, won’t they?

  • paul barker 7th Dec '12 - 1:47pm

    An excellent article, if we dont argue for the principle of coalition, no-one else will.
    The essential problem is the tribalism of british voters & thats not something we can change quickly. We arent going to persuade britain to love coalitions by 2015 but we can convince them its the best option if we beleive in ourselves.
    Labour are having fun now but come 2015 they wont have anything to say & we will.

  • What’s most difficult to take in , as someone who believes in coalition , or to be more precise, proportional representation, which obv. invariably leads to coalition. Is how this experience of doing ‘coalition ‘ under FPTP, has almost certainly destroyed the chances of getting key democratic reforms incl. HoL reform, for ‘at least a generation’.

    By common agreement, through this ill-judged coalition, LD’s have set reform back hugely.. pretty abysmal stuff really.

  • Lorna Dupre 7th Dec '12 - 3:04pm

    The problems come with having to explain “We advocated A, they advocated B, but we agreed to settle on B”!

  • jenny barnes 7th Dec '12 - 4:23pm

    My local constituency is Tory, with (2010) LDs in 2nd place with around 30% of the vote. My question for 2015 is do I vote LD in the rather vain hope of keeping the Tory out, or for someone else on the grounds that both LD & Tory were in the Coalition government, which I want to see the back of? Or should I just spoil my ballot paper, on the grounds that all the major parties are neo-liberals, and we can see where that leaves us. No, I’m not going out delivering thousands of Focus leaflets like I did in 2010.

  • From the Lib Dem perspective, there have been two attractive but quite distinct arguments for PR. First, that it would be a better reflection of the democratic will of the people, and would (within limits) ensure that every voter was adequately represented in Parliament. Second, that it would be politically good for the Liberal Democrats, ensuring better representation and more parliamentary clout.
    For a long time these arguments were not viewed to be in conflict, since it was assumed that both were equally true; indeed, it was assumed that the Lib Dems operated politically below par because the system was stacked against them; not only was their parliamentary representation substantially below their vote share, but it was presumed that there were many potential Liberal Democrat voters out there who felt that they had to vote Labour or Conservative to avoid “throwing away their votes”. Hence the conclusion that in a PR system, Liberal Democrats would not only have a share of seats commensurate with their vote share, but their vote share would also go up as voters saw a Lib Dem vote as a more meaningful proposition.
    But what happens to the argument if “what’s good for democracy” and “what’s good for the Lib Dems” turn out to be quite different things? What if PR results, not in a Liberal Democrat party winning 30-40% of votes and seats, but — via alternately alienating voters on both left and right through changing coalitions with different partners — never more than 10%? What if the primary beneficiaries of PR would be regional and special-issue parties, and the Lib Dems ended up in a situation as bad or worse than their current one — always in government, but never with substantial influence — a situation that only benefited a favored few junior ministers?
    As a Liberal Democrat, how would you balance your democratic principles with the potential loss of party strength and status? Which is more important?

  • Peter Watson 7th Dec '12 - 5:03pm

    Based on responses to this article, I would suggest that “15-20% who are Coalition enthusiasts” is a bit of an over-estimate. 😉

  • Elizabeth Patterson 7th Dec '12 - 5:03pm

    Clearly our leaders found coalition more difficult than they thought it would be.
    But they seem to have got the hang of it now , to judge by the self confident body language of late.

    I do not think there will be a uniform swing in 2005, and most of our MPs should be able to hold their seats, since we only have to target our resources on about 75 seats.

    My MAIN WORRY about the party is possibly having to work with a Milliband/Balls led Labour minority government. I recognize that we have to go through the coalition stage as a necessary step to being a full governing party; but these two characters are comedians who would make a more terrible mess than they did before. We couldn’t possibly work with them.
    Of course David Milliband /Alistair Darling would be an entirely different matter. But that is not on offer.

  • James Sandbach 7th Dec '12 - 6:15pm

    The raises some interesting issues and touches on the weaknesses of our coalition model and why to some it lacks legitimacy, especially in a Country and constitutional framework which as Disreali once said “does not like coalitions”…whilst I’m an ardent political pluralist I don’t think “reclaiming the virtues of coalition” is a simple as John Kampfner (a commentator who’s never been part of any governmental institution or process) makes out, and there’s much adaptation that needs to happen in both Whitehall and Parliament to make coalition Govt. more effective:- eg:-

    Transparency – its difficult in a coalition arrangement for the ordinary less political public to get even a peek into the decision-making process, as so much of the negotiation goes on behind closed doors..

    Consultation processes – Because there has to be so much more consultation within Government to reach a policy outcomes, the ordinary processes of Governmental consultation do not work very well especially when it comes to consulting with interests (business, civil society, other stakeholders) beyond Government – frankly most of the public consultations over the past couple of years have been a complete sham, and haven’t done much to shape thinking or policy parameters

    The whipping system – the legislative tussels and painstaking parliamentary procedures have not been a pretty sight with much of the Coalition’s programme (who was it who said there are two things in life which you don’t how they’re made – laws and sausages?), the whipping system (an the way legislative business is scheduled in both chambers) is ridiculously arcahaic and inhibits effective scrutiny of legislation let alone honest debate. So we’ve regularly had lib dems voting at report stage against amendments they tabled at committee stage, trumped up divisions on technical amendments, procedural games, “walking through fire” into treacherous division lobbies etc etc. Parties, individuals or groups within parities need to have far more freedom to rebel without risk of career death or social ostrication.. we no not send our elected representatives to Parliament to be lemmings. The Government will not fall if it looses a few votes on obscure amendments etc..

    Chambers and Conventions – more generally the whole “Her Majesty’s Government” and “Her Majesty’s opposition” thing, as typified by PMQs and benches on the opposite side of the chamber, doesn’t really fit coalition politics (or even 3 party politics)

    Conflict and adjudication – does anyone really think “the Quad” or the “Star Chamber” (on money issues) is the appropriate structure for setting disputes in the coalition. How does one adjudicate for example when there’s a genuine disagreement in what any particular passage of “the coalition agreement” really means in policy practice.. should there be a more independent arbital system to go with any coalition agreement?

    Because driving the coalition we have very small group of youngish politicians spinning and making it all up as they go along with few guiding precedents, and trying to operate a blairite command and control model over their parties, we have an outcome of the very worst sort of elite Westminster bubble politics, poor public administration, and lib dem policy always losing out to tory policy.

    Coalition can’t work here without major political reform – and that doesn’t just mean how someone gets their backside onto a red or green bench, but how the system works when they get there..

  • Elizabeth, would you also characterize Cameron/Osborne as “two comedians who make a more terrible mess than before?”
    As for being a “full governing party” — do you really think that is “on offer”, decades or even a century from now? If so, could you describe what sort of future history would yield that result?

  • James, why do you think that the politicians are “making it all up as they go along with few guiding precedents”? There were previous coalition governments within living memory, and the civil service ought to have pretty detailed records of how they worked. Are there structural, political, cultural or social differences that make this coalition different from previous coalitions?

  • I fail to see why people continue to blame Labour for the failure of reforms.

    Have you forgotten, Ed Milliband was in favour of AV and even campaigned for the yes campaign.
    It was Cameron who urinated over the agreement to stay out of the AV campaign and ended up speaking for the NO campaign.

    Labour supported HOL reforms and put forward a motion for discussion, It was the Tories who pulled the motion and stopped it dead in it’s tracks as they did not want to suffer a government defeat.

    It was the Liberal Democrats who pulled the plug on boundary reforms in retaliation for the conservatives HOL betrayal.

    Blaming Labour for the failure of the reforms is just nonsense.

    This party needs to take some responsibility for its own failures in government and for stuffing up their own plans for constitutional reform.

  • I agree with much of what Stephen says. The problem is that we have become too wedded (in the public eyes) with the Tories, who are mainly still attached to their vested interests (including wealth, multiple property ownership, big business and the right-wing media and “think tanks”). It is not our job to reform them, even if this was possible. Some people might view the Tories as pinching our best ideas, our best thinkers and some of our best policies for their own gain. Possibly even as a “human shield”. We must make sure this doesnt happen and that we have distinctive and progressive policies which actually fit with the preamble to our constitution NOT Conservative ideas. Having said that, I dont envy the position that Nick and some others are in. Though as Gandhi once said, “To be brave……………..!”

  • Martin Lowe 7th Dec '12 - 10:52pm

    @Matt (7.07pm)

    “I fail to see why people continue to blame Labour for the failure of reforms.”

    Oh, I dunno. Maybe having David Blunkett lie about AV in the run-up to the Referendum AND then admit he lied about it when the vote had taken place may have something to do with it.

  • Martin Lowe

    So a has-been reactionary Labourite who has been well and truly discredited becomes the ‘Labour Party’.

    Nothing to do with your Coalition ‘partners’ though also being economical with the actualité, breaking promises, funding the No campaign and bringing to bear their friends in the press?

    In fact the people who stopped the AV reform was influenced by a combination of reactionary Labourites and the whole of the Tory Party. The main problem though was that the party whose policy was seen as ie you were tanking in popularity so much so that your leader was rarely seen as he had n credibility left.

    blame everyone else if you want but have the decency to look in the mirror as well

  • Stephen: I think some of your cariacatures are not only grossly unfair but bloody counterproductive. Painting those who left over the tuition fees issue as single issue fanatics when actually they are having a perfectly reasonable response to “no more broken promises” “oh you see this solemn promise, well we’re going to break it” – a personal pledge IS different from a manifesto commitment to be negotiated and it’s interesting that those mps who stuck to the pledge have seen nowhere near as much damage in local elections as all the rest of us.

    The failure of the leadership (and, it seems you) to grasp that it’s not the specific solemn personal pledge that our mps broke, it’s the fact that they broke one is the number one frustration among ex members and supporters I have spoken to. And I have spoken to A LOT. The longer we fail to get it, the worse it will be.

  • @ Jennie – I’ve many friends among those you say I’m being grossly unfair about. I said it was a caricature, but it wasn’t a careless one. Everyone’s entitled to come to their own judgement but I don’t agree with those who leave the party over one issue, or even two or three tbh. Folk are doomed to disappointment if they expect to agree with their chosen party on every issue, including some that will matter deeply to them. They’re equally doomed if they expect parties always to be able to keep promises no matter what the circs. That’s just not how any deliberative process works, whether at home or work or in politics.

    I couldn’t not be involved in politics – it matters too much – so I chose the party closest to my views, fully expecting it would sometimes take stances I disagree with. I guess it’s always possible I might get to my cumulative ‘red-line’ in the Lib Dems, but I’ve never been close to it, despite fundamentally disagreeing with some of our party’s positions in my dozen-plus years as a member. That’s because leaving changes nothing, except ensuring those who share your views become more of a minority.

    I understand not everyone will share my tolerance threshold: fair enough, that’s their choice. My choice is to disagree with those who resign over a single issue (I’d make an exception for starting an illegal war).

  • “They’re equally doomed if they expect parties always to be able to keep promises no matter what the circs.”

    If that also applies to written, signed promises made by individual politicians, then it’s a very sad comment, at least on your opinion of the integrity of politicians.

    For myself, if someone makes a promise to me – particularly a written, signed promise – then I do expect that promise to be kept. If it’s not kept, then I know that person is not to be trusted in the future.

    Perhaps I was naive in assuming that politicians would behave like other people in that respect, but on the other hand I did originally join the party when you, Stephen, were ten years old, and I was an active member of the party for two decades, so my naivete was not based on a lack of experience. But I have learned my lesson now – about my own MP, and about most of the other Lib Dem MPs too.

  • markfairclough 8th Dec '12 - 9:45am

    @Stephen , oh why do we have to have the answer is going in with Labour.
    If we have 3 different Libdems its more like some hate coalition with the Tories, some hate a coalition with Labour,
    some want to stay independent of both

  • Karen Wilkinson 8th Dec '12 - 10:40am

    You see what you look for.

    I see Steve Webb delivering pension changes, Ed Davey delivering an Energy Bill etc etc. These are the glimpses of what a LibDem government would look like.

    Individuals and the party are on a steep learning curve. It seems to me the measure of our strength of character and hence our longterm survival will not be whether we made errors but how we learnt from our experience.

  • I do not see in this thread any acknowledgement of the parlous economic situation facing the UK – and most of the world come to that – when the election threw up the result it did. Talk about whether we should have cobbled some sort of temporary crutch for a minority Conservative government totally ignores how that would have served us in the eyes of the all-important markets. Poor though the current situation is it could be a hell of a lot worse.

    The other crucial point is that the only prospect of Lib Dems gaining any part whatsoever in government decisions is by way of coalition. A Lib Dem majority government in our lifetime anyone? We all wish for more of our policies to be implemented but given our numbers as against thge Tories our boys have in my humble opinion achieved a lot. We simply must make coalition work and with all its disappointments it is in my view the most exciting and challemging era in the 52 years of my party membership.

    Put me in your first category, Stephen.

  • James Sandbach 8th Dec '12 - 11:00am

    David – why do I say the politicians are improvising; well there hasn’t been a Westminster coalition since the war and that was a v different context so no rule book as such and since when there have big changes in the machinery and processes Government, but to the extent to which there are constitutional rules And conventions they have been distorted to suit political agendas – the civil service manual for example says that in a hung parliament scenario it is the sitting PM who has the right to take a 1st stab at forming a govt. Nick turned this on its head straight after the GE by saying it was Cameron’s right.

  • “our boys have in my humble opinion achieved a lot. ”

    How very Liberal

  • I still think it’s a bit harsh painting “I thought this person could be trusted and now they have proved they are a liar” as a single issue, Stephen. If you’ll lie on one subject, you’ll lie on any subject. Again, the actual subject we lied about is not the issue to the vast majority of people who are upset about it. It’s the fact that they thought they could trust us and now they know they can’t. This is different from a manifesto commitment being negotiated away. People understand that that is the price of coalition. This shows we won’t even keep set in stone signed personal promises. I genuinely don’t get how those who are not among the 21 who kept their promise can recover from it.

  • Richard Harbord 8th Dec '12 - 2:24pm

    The long list of achievements made by the Lib Dems in Coalition is impressive and it is right that we should trumpet them. The difficulty is that there have been so many mis-firing unsuccessful initiatives and it is quite a long list. I dread to think what Nick Clegg will come up with next though I do applaud his desire to see gender equality when it comes to the royal succession. I did fear that his attempt to impose an elected second chamber in Parliament was an attack on the hereditary principle, inheritance per se and a move towards a republic. After all the succession of our head of State is based on those very principles. Putting all that aside I think that the Lib Dems have achieved a great deal in the Coalition and I am confident the voting public will recognise that at the next election.

  • Peter Watson 8th Dec '12 - 4:55pm

    @jennie “I still think it’s a bit harsh painting “I thought this person could be trusted and now they have proved they are a liar” as a single issue”
    Totally agree. And since Clegg also promised “no more broken promises”, then it’s two issues straight away.
    Besides which, we’ve already seen the wider consequences of this perceived betrayal. Clegg was villified in the AV referendum, mortally wounding the Yes campaign and damaging the notion of coalition government, not because the electorate was angry about tuition fees but because they did not trust two-faced Lib Dems who promise one thing to get elected and then do another. I believe it will take our party a long time to recover from that.

  • Martin Pierce 8th Dec '12 - 8:51pm

    I agree with Dan Falchikov. I was a bit surprised to see the headline. I haven’t done or seen any scientific analysis but anecdotal evidence would suggest that actually the coalition has been positive for ‘the idea of coalition’ in that it’s not seen as weak government per se. I would absolutely suggest that what people dislike is THIS Coalition

  • Tony Dawson 8th Dec '12 - 11:11pm

    @Elizabeth Patterson:

    “My MAIN WORRY about the party is possibly having to work with a Milliband/Balls led Labour minority government”

    Well, who knows, we might learn from our experience with one lot of Tories to help us deal with another one. Remember the two Eds spent 13 years making the rich-poor gap even bigger than Mrs Thatcher did.

  • Paul in Twickenham 9th Dec '12 - 12:35am

    There is yet another group of former Liberal Democrat members to consider: that would be those who did not leave the party but came to the objective conclusion that the party left them.

    I’m not a starry-eyed idealist, a political purist or a callow youth. I’ve been a party member for 30 years and I have attended numerous conferences, have worked in countless by-elections (I recall a particularly happy week spent living in a caravan parked in someones front garden during the West Derbyshire by-election) and have expended vast amounts of personal time and energy on behalf of the party.

    So I’m like lots of people on this forum.

    I have no objection to coalition. I have no problem with the idea that we don’t get what we want all the time. I have no issue with courting unpopularity in advance of important political goals.

    What I object to is a party leadership that has given every appearance (most recently at conference in September) of regarding the traditions of British Liberalism as at best embarrassing and at worst objectionable.

    I object to leadership that is so desperate to show “coalition can work” that it abandons the most basic principles of the Liberal Democrats and votes with apparent enthusiasm for vile, illiberal legislation.

    I object to leadership that has set back the cause of constitutional and electoral reform by 30 years as a result of the mess it made of every aspect of its handling of those issues.

    I object to leadership that looks to the European Liberal model as the future of the British Liberal Democrats, because I for one would never join the FDP.

    And is it really the case that “open dissent” in parliament now consists of raising your eyes to the ceiling and muttering “cor blimey”? It sounds as absurd and arcane as top hats and stranger spying.

    I left the party because the leadership has moved it to a place I do not recognize as being Liberal. I look forward to the day when I can rejoin.

  • Steve Griffiths 10th Dec '12 - 10:58am

    “There is yet another group of former Liberal Democrat members to consider: that would be those who did not leave the party but came to the objective conclusion that the party left them. ”

    Paul, wise words and ones that ring true for me too. I felt insulted by Stephen’s carricatures of the reasons why so many former members had left the party. No, I was not looking for one red line to be crossed to go; I had let so many red lines pass yet still hung on, hoping upon hope that the continual drift away from the party I had joined in the 19060’s, might somehow slow down. Even now we look to the leadership for a nod in our direction, hoping still to return, but none comes – only speeches from Nick Clegg and others that sound like we are not wanted anyway.

    As others have said, I have certainly more years service to the Liberals and Lib Dems than Stephen Tall and I suspect Nick Clegg and his advisors. I have over many years invested my time, money and enthusiasm to the cause and to be dismissed in this way by Stephen’s rather tawdry carricatures makes me wonder why I bothered. I have not joined any other party because I have ‘Libertarian Leftie’ imprinted in me like Blackpool Rock, but it is pieces like this one that would simply make me think again before I rejoined.

    Stephen, do you not want us back in a’ broad church’, or are you happy being in what Roy Jenkins feared – “a right little tight little party”? Dismissing us in this way is hardly holding the door open for us.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Dec '12 - 11:00am

    Unless I have missed it, no-one seems to have pointed out what ought to be an obvious issue – this is NOT sort of coalition government that our long-term constitutional reform policies would want, because the balance of the parties in it is not proportional according to their vote. There are 57 Liberal Democrat MPs and 306 Conservative MPs, and the balance of power between parties within the government reflects that. Had the number of MPs reflected the share of the vote, but for the sake of argument supposing the coalition parties together had the same number of MPs, there would have been 141 Liberal Democrats MPs and 222 Conservative MPs. Can anyone doubt that the resulting coalition would be very different?

    So those who say “Having seen what has happened with this coalition, I reject the idea of proportional representation and the coalitions it will bring about” are arguing illogically, as they are rejecting proportional representation for the very fault that it is intended to correct. The Liberal Democrats are reduced to a minor role of internal critics who can occasionally swing the balance to the left when there’s a fairly even division within the Conservative Party in what is otherwise very much a Conservative government because of the distortions of the current electoral system. Not only does it reduce their balance within the coalition, it denies them the on;y really effective tool a junior coalition partner has to get its way – the threat of breaking the coalition and forming an alternative one with the the major party. The distortions of first past the post meant that although the Liberal Democrats and Labour combined had a clear majority of the votes, they did not have a clear majority of the MPs, so a Labour-LibDem coalition was not viable – it would have been perpetually in negotiation with fourth party MPs – who mainly from non-English constituencies. Indeed, the fairly generous financial settlement which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy to this day perhaps stems from a similar situation in the 1970s.

    So in fact the FPTP system in 2010, while not actually delivering a full majority to one party still worked its magic, did what its supporters, Labour and Conservative, say is the best thing about it – distorted representation to give a government which is very decisive because more politically extreme than the electorate and dominated by one party. Those who say “I now support FPTP and oppose coalition governments because of what I have seen with this coalition” ought to be honest about the corollary of that position – which is that we would have a Conservative majority government in right now. There is no logic in the line that what is wrong with this government is that it is over-dominated by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are weak in it so therefore you support an electoral system which has just this effect.

    The Liberal Democrat leadership made a huge mistake at the start – and continue to make it – by not making clear the constraints under which it is operating and by exaggerating rather than downplaying its role in this government. So the general public tend to see this as an equal partnership, and therefore the Liberal Democrats are getting equal blame for policies which are inevitably far more Conservative than Liberal Democrat. I don’t think the party had a choice about this – had it held out for a share of government posts equal to the share of votes, I suspect most people in the country would have seen it as the Liberal Democrats damaging the country by causing it to become unstable over a minor point most people don’t understand to regard as important. The cause of proportional representation IS important, but unfortunately as it requires a bit of mathematics to think through it and see its logic, most people switch off, including most national media political commentators who seem to regard innumeracy as something to boast about. While I realise AV is not a proportional system, the minor advantages it has were lost because commentary on it often came from people who clearly could not grasp the algorithm and think and discuss it in those terms. I really do believe that had it been clearly explained by the “Yes” campaign, using a few simple and friendly “split vote” scenarios, explaining how it ends the “most vote for X to stop Y” way it forces people to vote for the big political parties, there could have been a big majority in favour. Instead, because it was sold with wishy-washy ad-men’s slogans, it was lost, and the innumerate arguments of its opponents (some really so, others knowingly contrived in the knowledge the public would accept them) were accepted, and it was turned into a vote on Mr Clegg, without Mr Clegg issuing the defence of his position which I myself have given above.

    Yes, AV was a “miserable little compromise”, and so is the coalition. Neither are our ideal, and we should have been honest to make that clear, and then used the line we accept them because unfortunately they are the best the other parties are willing and able to give – if you don’t like it, next time don’t vote for them, vote for us.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Dec '12 - 11:29am

    Another factor that has hardly been discussed but ought to, and the blame for it not being discussed falls at least partly on the shoulders of our leaders who for propaganda reasons wanted to put the opposite line, is the extremist nature of today’s Conservative Party. In economic terms it is far more right-wing than it was the last time it was in government. Yet it put out the line, which seems to have been accepted by media commentators and our own party high-ups, that it had become more moderate, that it had “detoxified”.

    The consequence of this is that the concessions we have been able to achieve look insignificant because there does not seem to be the realisation of how we have had to pull even to get them. Guardian-reader types really do need to look at the right-wing press occasionally to see how the Liberal Democrats are written up there – as some sort of socialist fifth column stopping the delivery of the much more extreme economic policies the Tories would really like to be pushing – in order to appreciate that actually the Liberal Democrats have been achieving something.

    In part this is to do with the way politics is not on one simple spectrum. The claims that the Conservatives have “liberalised” come from a few issues, notably gay rights (no-one could imagine something like Clause 28 going through now) where that is true. It is important to realise that however important these things are, most of the population doesn’t see then that way and therefore is not impressed when Liberal Democrats claim victory on them at the expense of conceding to Conservative right-wing economics.

    I appreciate there are some in the party now who actually seem to see the result as purely “liberal”, that is, they see the right-wing economics as “liberal” as well as the other issues. These people seem to have come from nowhere in recent years, and without having sought a democratic mandate for it seem to have become very influential, judging from the number of them who have been appointed to various advisory roles to the leadership. This has made it much harder to argue the lines about necessary compromise and difficult decisions because of hard times, because the prominence of these people makes it easier for our opponents to use the lines “You are only saying that as an excuse for what you really wanted to do anyway”.

    So, again, I am in the position where I want to defend our party on the grounds of being realistic, but the defence lines I want to use are being undermined by its leader.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Dec '12 - 12:14am


    Have you forgotten, Ed Milliband was in favour of AV and even campaigned for the yes campaign

    Yes, like everyone else. Which shows that if he did actually go out and campaign on the issue he did so in a way so half-heartedly that it wasn’t even noticed, hence allowing AV to be defeated because it was seen my most people as a purely LibDem thing.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Dec '12 - 12:17am

    Richard Harbord

    I dread to think what Nick Clegg will come up with next though I do applaud his desire to see gender equality when it comes to the royal succession.

    Yes, another big stand on a token issue, which will be seen by most voters as typical of the LibDems – obsessed with things no-one else cares about and so obsessed that they are prepared to give way on so many others things that people DO care about.

  • To those who have left the Party can I say this. Please can you come back and fight your corner. I think that we have the right principles and the right policies within our Party but we do need people like you to continue defending our Constitution and our Manifesto.

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