In conversation with David Laws

The former Liberal Democrat MP and government minister discusses his new book about the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government, says what he would do differently in hindsight, and looks into his crystal ball to see what the future holds for the party…

Your new book about the Coalition has certainly made a few waves following its Sunday newspaper serialisation – the right kind of waves?

I think inevitably there is a temptation in the press to shed light on things which are currently topical, such as Tory divisions on the referendum. But the primary reason I wrote the book was to give an accurate, historic account of the Coalition and a proper explanation of our part in it – and if the serialisation results in more people reading the book, so much the better.

It sounds like you’re, by and large, proud of what the Lib Dems achieved in government?

I think we achieved some extraordinary things, and achieved more in those five years than we’d achieved in the previous 50 years: be it the pupil premium, the raising of the tax allowance, environmental policies and pension reform. We just paid an extraordinary high price in terms of electoral support

Some have challenged your claim that the Lib Dems stopped the Conservatives imposing a cash freeze on the NHS, and an additional £10 billion of cuts, but I take it you stand by what you’ve said?

Yes, I think you can see from reading the book some of the extreme things that would have happened if the Conservatives had been governing by themselves – with much deeper cuts and very different policies on a range of things, as we can see now that the Conservatives are governing by themselves.

But there were negatives about the Coalition – tuition fees, the bedroom tax etc – and a lot of people still find it hard to believe the Lib Dems helped implement such policies…

Our biggest mistake on tuition fees was not to change the policy completely before the 2010 election – there were some who argued for that, but it was a very divisive issue in the party. And the truth is that free tuition fees were becoming increasingly unaffordable, given that the public finances were in such a mess. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I think we should have vetoed the increase in fees since it was so far from what we had in our manifesto, and handed a big stick to our opponents to beat us with…

But the positives outweigh the negatives, in your view?

Yes, hugely. We went into government, stabilised the economy, helped turn it around and tried to make the country a fairer place by introducing the pupil premium, reforming pensions and so on…

And what would you mark the Coalition out of ten?

I’d give it a pretty high mark. I’d mark it down on some things, like political reform. And the Tories were vetoing a lot of stuff on the environment towards the end. Overall, I’d give it 7 or 8 out of ten as a government – even if politically, it doesn’t get a mark anything like that for the Lib Dems.

So why were we punished so heavily at the ballot box last year?

All the evidence suggests that when a smaller party goes into coalition, its identity becomes compromised – and supporters worry about its policies and identity being diluted. Smaller parties tend to see a decline in support after going into coalition, but this time the drop in support was particularly steep, in part because we went into government at such a difficult time economically.

What’s there to prevent the same thing happening should we go into coalition again some day?

Only by having a more proportionate voting system, so the first thing we have to do is think about how we can advance the prospects of electoral reform. But if we went into coalition again, we’d clearly have to avoid making the kind of mistakes we did with tuition fees.

Some people hoped that we might have bounced back in the polls by now, but there isn’t much sign of a recovery. Why is that?

It takes time to turn people’s views around and for them to re-evaluate things. I have no doubt that we will recover and bounce back, but it’s likely to happen quicker at the local level. There’s no doubt that we’ve been badly damaged by the extent of the losses we suffered last year, which means we have less of a political presence and can command less media air time.

What is your prescription for success?

Rebuild locally. And at a national level, do two things. First, make sure that we’re seen as the party to promote and defend liberal values. Second, identify two or three big bread-and-butter issues that will strike a real chord with the public.

What of yourself – any plans to stand in Yeovil again?

I decided early in 2015 that if I got elected again it would be my last parliament, and 2020 would be a good time to pass the baton on to someone else. But I’m keen to see us retake Yeovil and will do all I can to help make that happen.

Where do you see the party a couple of years from now?

I hope we’ll have rebuilt at local level by 2018, and started making some real net gains. Secondly, we’ll have in place some really strong candidates in those parliamentary seats we’re targeting.  And lastly, we as a party will have a much clearer identity in the public’s mind.

A couple of final questions…

You’ve been described as a Gladstonian ‘small-government’ liberal – are you?

Not really – I’ve always wanted to bring together the party’s economic and social liberal traditions, and that’s what I think we achieved in coalition.

Lastly, do you and Nick Clegg ever get together over a whisky late at night to ponder what might have been?

I’ve seen Nick two of three times since the election, and while there are a lot of little things I think we might have done differently, we both agree that going into coalition was the right thing for the country in 2010.  Although if we did get together to mull over the past, it would more likely be over a beer or a glass of wine – I’m not a big fan of whisky!

‘Coalition: The Inside Story of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government’, by David Laws, is published by Biteback

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22 Comments

  • Paul Murray 17th Apr '16 - 9:36am

    Thanks, York, this is a great interview.

    Laws answers your question about the “prescription for success” by saying “Rebuild locally”. I think this is clearly right and acknowledges the fact that the Liberal Democrats win MPs in places where we have a record of local government success, something that seemed to often be forgotten during the coalition. The upcoming local elections are a hugely important measure of the long-term health of the party.

    Laws says that we need to establish a few “bread-and-butter issues” with which we are identified. Again I couldn’t agree more. We continue to bump along at 7% despite the obvious problems afflicting both the Conservatives and Labour. There’s an opportunity that the party seems to be squandering.

    Where I disagree with Laws is – inevitably – with his suggestion that it is only with “the benefit of hindsight” that he would have vetoed the tuition fee increases. It was perfectly obvious at the time that this was would be a huge blow to the party’s credibility and would alienate many people who had been drawn to the party because it actually did what it said it would do.

    But we are where we are and I am delighted to find myself in agreement with Laws about how we move forward. So as I say, a really useful interview.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Apr '16 - 10:37am

    I plan to buy the book. On prescriptions for success I would slightly toughen the party’s approach, or at least its rhetoric, on immigration.

    The party doesn’t have to be bland centrist and I even disagree with the centre-ground at times, but appealing to Financial Times readers or Guardian readers isn’t enough. The party needs to go for the mainstream.

    The Save Our Steel campaign and defending public sector employees are all fairly progressive mainstream ideas. Addressing public concerns on other issues doesn’t mean becoming austerity loving number crunchers.

  • “However, with the benefit of hindsight, I think we should have vetoed the increase in fees since it was so far from what we had in our manifesto”

    So there we have it really, we could have vetoed it and Laws needed “hindsight” to spot what was obvious without foresight.

    It the same old abuse of the party – “achieved more in those five years than we’d achieved in the previous 50 years” really ? A Scottish Assembly, Welsh Assembly, STV for local Government in Scotland, Legalised abortion, Free tuition fees in Scotland, PR for the Euro Elections, a key voice in the 1975 referendum, MEPs achieving things, running councils, a voice in the media vs the get about pupil premium, something no one voted for, which recycles the same money with a different label and can be axed at any time, killing off electoral and Lords reform for 20 years and electoral oblivion.

  • …….”but this time the drop in support was particularly steep, in part because we went into government at such a difficult time economically.” ???

    A bit of Mea Culpa would be more appropriate.

  • Jenny Barnes 17th Apr '16 - 4:42pm

    “What’s there to prevent [wipeout] happening again should we go into coalition again some day? Only by having a more proportionate voting system,”

    We’re not likely to have that chance any time soon. PR should have been a red line coalition agreement issue. No referendum, just do it within 6 months. There was no difficulty with the 5 year parliament act.

  • Good idea from John Marriot :
    “…..whereas,[potential students] in subjects such as Science, Engineering, Medicine etc., where there was a strong trade in factor for future employment, bursaries would be available. However, if this were the case, students receiving financial assistance, especially in subjects like Medicine, should commit themselves to spend a significant number of years working for the state,…”
    And not just a good idea, but it embodies the same goal of Ukip policy on tuition fees, which proposes that STEM students who stay and work for 5 years in the UK would have their tuition fees cancelled.

  • If I remember correctly there was an attempt by the party leadership to dump the tuition fees policy at conference and it was resoundingly defeated. For the leadership to have then made the policy a central plank of the general election campaign and yet not include it in the coalition negotiations was breathtakingly incompetent.

  • Bill le Breton 17th Apr '16 - 7:09pm

    By 1985 we had produced a cadre of council leaders and committee ‘chairs’ with experience and expertise in running joint administrations. Over the years they helped advise colleagues who subsequently found themselves in ‘the balance’.

    In 2010 there were therefore about 150 Liberal Democrats with more experience and a better grasp of how to manage both the coalition negotiations, their communication and the administration of government under those conditions.

    Every one of these would have done a better job than the, by comparison, inexperienced and politically naive leadership that made such a mess in 2010.

    By December 2010 they had lost 5 million votes and under the same management continued to fail. By 2011 electoral disasters began.

    None of those experienced politicians would have conducted a Rose Garden style communication campaign, none would have failed to say that given the political position of the party in relation to Tuition Fees it had to be a red line – something that the Conservatives fully appreciated themselves. All of them would have run, what Cameron later called, a transactional administration ie one in which the opening positions of negotiations were public and the linkages between gains and loses in those negotiations would have been a major part of the communications.

    Clegg and Laws were incompetent. However talented they may have been in other areas, as politicians they were destroyed by their coalition partners. Theirconfidence in their own ability was breathtaking. It is risible to hear now one of them talking of building from the grass roots – when they were the ones walking across the grassroots with a watering can of Roundup.

  • They did not take advice at the start. The Party had been screwed by Labour with a not quite promise about voting reform.

    The losses were out of proportion to the achievements. The good stuff has been branded as Tory achievements and we are occasionally blamed for the rest.

    Did you ask about that stupid NHS reform? Total waste of money and effort, and anyone who really believes family doctors should run things has had a very rosy view of GPs. The Party did all it could to stop it. The lack of will was in the Commons.

    It is our Party too. I hope no Leader will even try to exert the power over the Party again.

  • Richard Boyd OBE DL 18th Apr '16 - 4:29pm

    Bill le Breton has hit the nail on the head. I was a County Group Leader, 1993-97, in partnership with Labour. I was offered, and accepted, an experienced “Buddy” from ALDC
    (from LB Richmond) to guide us through operations in partnership. My group of 32 comprised only 14 who had previously been councillors. I faced 33 Labour (of whom 6 were new) and 31 Tories. The officer structure had worked with the Tories for decades. We needed, and accepted, guidance. From 93-97 we met regularly with LD County leaders, to share experience and walk in step with each other. No one at HQ bothered with us in 2010 yet Essex CC served a population of 1.6 million with a Billion £ budget
    (not far of Northern Ireland in population) and my colleagues in Kent (1.8 million) and Surrey were treated likewise. We cannot go back but never forget that those who ignore history pay a heavy price – and we did.

  • Sue Sutherland 18th Apr '16 - 6:18pm

    I also think Bill le Breton makes a good point but I don’t put the lack of consultation with experienced local Councillors down to Nick Clegg and David Laws alone. I think the party in general tends to idolise its MPs and treat them as great and mystical beings rather than as part of a team of campaigners. No wonder when they saw the possibility of being part of government, they became blinded by their own glory.

    We have to change the party’s culture to become less fixated on lofty individuals and more aware that local activists may see the political world more clearly in many circumstances than those swept up in the wonders of Westminster. We must never again forget the old Liberal dictat that power must be mistrusted even when we wield it ourselves.

  • When Lord Oakeshott commissioned polls showing the electoral wipe out if Clegg remained leader, Laws was so delighted at getting Oakeshott to resign from the party that he “laughed all the way from Salisbury to Yeovil”.

    Does Lib Dem Voice really need to keep plugging his dreadful book ?

  • Geoffrey Payne 19th Apr '16 - 1:21pm

    I am frustrated by the interview to be honest. We all agreed that we cocked it up on tuition fees although there is not a consensus on what we should have done about it.
    However the question also referred to the bedroom tax, and there was no interview response to that. I have the book and I may find something about it in there, although it is not in the index. Where were the questions on the other benefit cuts, on the racist vans, secret courts, free schools and academies, the failed occupation of Afghanistan and the botched regime change in Libya? The one part of the book I have read so far shows that there was hardly any debate with George Osborne about his timetable for budget deficit reduction. And why was Vince Cable sidelined from the major strategic decisions of the Coalition which were taken instead by an unelected quad?
    It is true that the Orange Book Liberals won the economic debates within the party, getting their motions through conference. For that reason then responsibility for the scale of our defeat at the last general election rests almost entirely with the then party leadership and their backers.
    It would have been interesting to ask David Laws what the party should do now. In the past it was argued that it was the left of the party that was “not serious about power”. Well with the benefit of hindsight if we are serious about power, then on the face of it we now know where not to go.

  • Peter Watson 19th Apr '16 - 4:45pm

    @Geoffrey Payne “It is true that the Orange Book Liberals won the economic debates within the party, getting their motions through conference. For that reason then responsibility for the scale of our defeat at the last general election rests almost entirely with the then party leadership and their backers.”
    Sadly, the party and its membership do have to share that responsibility. As you point out, debates were won and motions were passed by conferences. Contributors on this site ridiculed the LibDems4Change initiative. Members did not take action to change the leadership (which speaks volumes, considering the whispering that seemed to go on behind the backs of Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell). From the outside it looks like Clegg and others screwed up your party, but the members did little or nothing to prevent it, despite all evidence of the damage being done.

  • @ Peter Watson “From the outside it looks like Clegg and others screwed up your party, but the members did little or nothing to prevent it, despite all evidence of the damage being done.”

    There’s something in that.

    It would be interesting to track back to find out when the neo-liberals actually joined the party and began to change its centre of gravity to the right. My hunch is that many joined post 1997 when we won over 40 seats for the first time since 1929 and they saw a career opportunity – and what appeared to be the terminal collapse of the Conservative Party. As a parliamentary candidate back in 1983, I remember we had a very Keynesian approach to economics.

    As for the membership – apart from the early seventies there has always been a reverential attitude to the leadership and the usual response has been to ask ‘how high’ when the leadership said ‘jump’. This has certainly been the case in recent years on Trident.

    My memories go further back to the sixties when we actually issued a national leaflet with a picture of Heath and Wilson asking “Which twin is the Tory ?” Dr Roy Douglas of free trade, retrenchment and anti-Common Market fame was ploughing a very lonely furrow.

    Cue Mark Pack – article needed in the Liberal History magazine.

  • Geoffrey Payne 20th Apr '16 - 1:05pm

    In answer to Peter Watson’s point, I supported LibDems4Change, but to be honest I thought they had no chance of succeeding. The membership of a political party, at least in the UK, NEVER overthrows their leader. Many of those who disagree with the leader left the party already and newcomers were bound to support the party leadership. Only the MPs can overthrow the party leader, as they did with Charles Kennedy.
    David Raw – I fear the answer to your question is a bit more unsettling. It was Jo Grimond who set the Liberal party the task of “realigning the left” in the 1960s. However he was influenced by Thatcherism in the 1980s and become more of an economic liberal. I am sure that those behind the Orange Book were inspired by him. I would like to think however that he would not have supported the Bedroom Tax.

  • @ Geoffrey Payne. Yes, you’re right about Jo. As he got older he did shift to the right…………. having enticed many of us into the party on the promise of a realignment of the left because Gaitskell’s Labour Party was too right wing. I well remember him at meetings darting all over the place (in a very impressive way) with rhetorical questions rather than solutions . I gather second hand that he used to do this when he was active on the board of the Rowntree Trust.

    The other trouble was that the partial realignment with the SDP didn’t always bring the most radical members of the Labour Party across – viz Owen D……. Kennedy C. was very much an exception.

    It’s not new…. if you dig back to 1908 there were always huge tensions between the radicals and the rest which culminated in the demise of the party post war in 1918 and its replacement by the Labour Party.

    What’s going to happen now I can only guess at, but I do know the tectonic plates are shifting. Values are eternal, political parties are not…… and there’s a bit of a vacuum at the top at the moment.

    The trouble with the Orangeistas is they had never done anything….. public school, university… some sort of banking or Spad… and they couldn’t believe it when their social equivalents in the Tory Party gobbled them up for breakfast. I’m not going to buy Laws’ book – although I’ll have a peek in the bookshop when it’s remaindered.

  • Stephen Howse 22nd Apr '16 - 9:59am

    “The trouble with the Orangeistas is they had never done anything….. public school, university… some sort of banking or Spad…”

    This seems a *slightly* unfair criticism given that Charles Kennedy, someone very much seen as being on the ‘left’ of the party, went straight from university into Parliament in his early twenties and then went on to be the best leader our party has ever had.

  • Stephen Hesketh 22nd Apr '16 - 5:29pm

    Caracatus 19th Apr ’16 – 11:47am
    “When Lord Oakeshott commissioned polls showing the electoral wipe out if Clegg remained leader, Laws was so delighted at getting Oakeshott to resign from the party that he ‘laughed all the way from Salisbury to Yeovil’.
    Does Lib Dem Voice really need to keep plugging his dreadful book ?”

    A bigger question for me is why LDV continues to plug Economic Orange Bookery, Cleggism and the line that, even with hindsight, the coalition was worth crashing our party for.

  • @ Stephen Howse Sorry, to be slightly unfair, Stephen, but I think there’s a world of difference between being brought up in a face to face Highland community and the stockbroker/banker belt of Buckinghamshire. The same comparison applies to Lochaber High School and Westminster School, and also to Glasqow University and Cambridge.

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