Is David Steel right about the Liberal Democrat attitude to a future coalition?

David Steel said the other day that there was no appetite in the party for a coalition with anybody after the election. He told the BBC:

“the most” Lib Dems would accept in another hung parliament is a confidence and supply deal – where policies are agreed on a case-by-case basis, rather than a formal coalition.

There was a “feeling” the party needed to “recharge our values”, he said.

Lord Steel added: “Association with another party is not the way to do it.”

He also said that the party wasn’t making enough of the vast improvement in economic fortunes it had brought about over the past five years.

The whole interview is worth listening to. Lord Steel said that a a minority government could succeed:

“What’s more, I think in the other two parties if you examine what’s happened a lot of David Cameron’s Tories want a Tory-only government, even if it’s a minority one, and similarly on the Labour side.

“So I suspect if you have to look into the crystal ball that we’re going to get a minority government which will have a multitude of minorities in the parliament, which is something new, and they’ll be able to play one off against the other.

“There’s no reason why it shouldn’t succeed.”

What do you think about his comments? Is there an argument that we should wait and see what happens before we rule anything in or out? If we get the chance to advance liberal reforms, then should we not take it? On the other hand, the party will, I think, be much more conscious of its own prospects having seen the heartbreaking losses we have suffered in the past five years. It would be irresponsible not to look at the whole picture based on our current experience.

I’m not sure, though, that anything other than full coalition would work. If we supported a government with some sort of confidence and supply arrangement, we don’t get to influence anything or drive the change that Norman Lamb has done on mental health or Steve Webb has done on pensions, for example. And we’d still get the blame for anything unpopular. For me it seems like a lose-lose situation for us.

I am far less convinced than David Steel that minority government could work. It did succeed at Holyrood but that was more because particularly John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon were prepared to engage constructively. I’m not sure that Westminster is that mature. The other big difference between the two parliaments is that people get the parliament they ask for at Holyrood. Westminster is much more tribal and not proportional. If it had been, we would have had around 140 MPs in 2010, giving us much more influence in any arrangement. Labour and the Conservatives would have fewer MPs and other parties more. It would be a much more balanced affair. That in itself changes the culture.

I’m surprised that David Steel didn’t mention the influence that the Lords could have in the next Parliament. I want to look at this in more detail later, but when you think about it, the second chamber could exert a considerable influence. Given their make up, with more Labour and Liberal Democrat members than Conservative, they could act as an effective brake to a Conservative government backed by UKIP, for example, or to any government which tries to cut welfare too hard or curtail civil liberties.

The post-election possibilities and options are myriad and complex. This is something that the Conservatives in particular will try to exploit in the next few weeks. In 2010 they made out that coalition would result in somewhere between Armageddon and a Zombie Apocalypse. In fact, it’s produced the best government of my lifetime. They are already doing the same thing with additional menaces this time.

Before we get too carried away with ourselves and rule anything in or out, we might want to consider what the Ashcroft polls have told us about what our voters want. They clearly like what we’ve been able to deliver in government, because, as Matt Smith’s infographic shows us, 96% of them want to see us in a coalition.

It’s impossible to tell exactly what the House of Commons will look like on May 8th. A few hundred votes across the whole country could make a huge difference to the options available to the party. My view would be to keep those options as open as possible and look at them very carefully afterwards. Surely the worst outcome would be where we have no options at all. We need to do all we can in the coming weeks to make sure that doesn’t happen.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Alisdair McGregor 22nd Mar '15 - 2:36pm

    From my conversations with people in the party, the feeling is that we’d prefer a coalition.

    Quite a few are of the opinion that Confidence & Supply won’t work.

  • Look at history & what happened in the mid 20 & early 30s to the Liberal Party .

    If the Libn Dems went into Coalition with Labour – that could lose right learning Lib Dems – leading another 5 years of loss of Councillors etc. Economic conditions are going to be tough in the next Parliament – so not a good time to be a smaller Coalition partner. IMO Labour would really, really screw the Lib Dems, and many would look back & may the think they were treated well by the Tories in comparison

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Mar '15 - 3:04pm

    My heart wants the party to go back into government, with either party, but my head says the public won’t like it.

    All options need to be on the table. Also, do we have some research as to why more people don’t vote Lib Dem? We need to find the path to revival. I know it involves more than people like me sitting on my backside, but it frustrates me that I can’t figure out why Lib Dem poll ratings are so low.

  • The first concern s that the Conservatives will secure a majority. I am surprised that so few acknowledge that if as few as 10 Lib Dem seats swap to Conservative as Labour leaning voters are persuaded not to vote tactically for their Lib Dem MP, then the Tories would have enough (more or less). This would, of course, render this discussion superfluous.

    Even if a coalition involving Lib Dems is feasible, a sho=arp drop in support and seats would, I am sure, remove appetite for coalition. Since I am surprised at the first two comments, I could be wrong.

    What is meant by ‘a confidence and supply deal’? Would that be the same as the Lib Lab pact? I suspect there could be any number of variations on this theme. Would I be right to presume that a deal would be year by year? How formal would it be?

    If the election yields no overall control, whatever the figures, sorting out a new government will surely take a lot longer than it did in 2010 Although I suspect there are some in both the larger parties who would welcome a coalition, the majority voices are averse to coalition. Under such circumstances it would not look good, would be tactically inept and a mistake to appear to solicit a coalition.

    Caron is right to doubt that Westminster politics is too immature to handle minority governance, however, I think the Party should be explaining that coalition is only one possibility and be talking up the duties of politicians to work constructively, to demonstrate maturity and to eschew tribalism in order to make a government possible.

  • David Evans 22nd Mar '15 - 3:18pm

    The way coalition has been managed over the last five years has been a disaster for Liberal Democracy; mainly because our leader and a few advisors convinced themselves that they knew how to do it and it would be all so straightforward. Those who were wiser were ignored and bypassed both from the viewpoint of refusing to acknowledge and use their expertise (cue Nick’s self righteous indignation “We are working very hard …”) and from the viewpoint of their democratic decisions (cue Secret Courts votes in Conference and the so called Shirley Williams wrecking motion at Gateshead). Until we have a leader who acknowledges these mistakes and is prepared to commit to not repeating them at every level, we will continue to drive away ever more supporters and activists who believe in the values and not just in an individual.

    In five years we have lost half our councillors, a third of our members and most of our support outside a small number of strongholds. Having worked so hard locally over decades to be sacrificed by a failed uncaring strategy centred around a few individuals in Westminster, they will not return just because we propose to do the same again, just a bit differently. If you want to commit Liberal Democracy to oblivion like the National Liberal of the 40s and 50s, just carry on making the same mistakes and pretending it will be better this time.

  • Frank Booth 22nd Mar '15 - 3:19pm

    If this is the best government of your lifetime Carol, I feel very sorry for you. Economic output 17% below the pre-crisis trend. Jobs growth looks better but the other side of that coin is dreadful productivity which wil have a major effect on our long term prosperity. The major structural weaknesses in the economy haven’t been dealt with. A financial system hardwired to lend on existing property as we build a third the number of houses Harold McMillan did (before you were born?) in spite of a fast growing population. Corporate decision making remains relentlessly short termist as even the bosses themseves admit (they still find time to remunerate themselves extravagently though). No serious attempt to change these things seems to be being made.

    As for events further afield I thought Philip Stephens had a pretty good demolition job on the coalition’s forign policy the other day. Britain has left an empty chair at the global table under a PM who thinks the rest of the world is somewhere to go on holiday. We do still insist on having aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines presumably for the same reasons we keep giving out honours in the name of a non-existant Empire. Doesn’t sound much like a Lib Dem foreign policy.

    Britain remains one of the most unequal societies in the western world and with one of the lowest levels of social mobility, both measures looking far worse than they did a generation ago. Not surprisingly this leads to agitation like the Indyref, with the parties buying off independence with a ‘vow’ with goodness knows what implications for the future of the UK. It hardly sounds great, but then neither were Thatcher, Major, Blair or Brown – so why should the coaition get such a bad rap? Unfortunately many voted Lib Dem in 2010 because they hoped in the words of one politician ‘we can do things differently’.

  • “Recharge our values” is an interesting turn of phrase.

  • Simon McGrath 22nd Mar '15 - 3:37pm

    Confident and Supply is what we had during the Lib Lab pact. We got very little out of it but still got all the blame for keeping a hugely unpopular government in office.

  • George Potter 22nd Mar '15 - 3:49pm

    I’d agree that confidence and supply wouldn’t work. It’s got all the downsides of coalition and none of the benefits. A far better alternative to coalition is what’s happening in Wales right now with a minority government that trades policy concessions to other parties to get its budget passed. That’s how the Welsh pupil premium was enacted for example – the Welsh Lib Dems insisted on it in exchange for not blocking the budget.

    And I’d also say that another coalition would be destructively short sighted. Another five years of limited influence in government is worse than no influence in government at all if the result is that at the end of five years the party is reduced in size so much that it’ll take generations to rebuild it.

    I firmly believe that the best outcome is a minority government with the Lib Dems rebuilding in opposition so that come 2020 we’ll once again have a hung parliament except with a larger contingent of Lib Dem MPs who are able to exert far more influence in a coalition.

  • I don’t want us to go into coalition. I think there is a real danger that if we go into coalition with Labour we alienate our right leaning supporters that has stuck with us and that when Labour are forced to make cuts we’ll be the fall guys. I think if that in that scenario we could easily be wiped out completely as any political force for a generation.

    If we went into coalition with the Tories with half the number of seats it would effectively put the ball in the court of the Tory right who would be empowered – that is not a Government we should be supporting.

    Another big problem for me with the thought of a coalition is that our manifesto themes are so bland. As a Lib Dem friend of mine said of it … achievable but dull. If we are going to take a political hit then at least can we be a bit more radical.

    On a vote by vote basis a confidence deal could be done – if that was the case everyone would be in on it so it would be harder for us to get blamed.

    I agree with David Steel – most of the people I speak to want 5 years out so we can come back stronger in 2020

  • I’m with those who say it’s all or nothing. if we offer confidence and supply we’ll take the hit anyway for anything unpopular, but if we are around the cabinet table then we can influence the unplanned issues as much as the long term policy. The idea of us taking whole ministries is interesting – but has it really been thought through? We’d still need major party support for the department’s primary legislation, and the public wouldn’t buy us washing our hands of policy from other departments, as we’d be voting for their bills.

    I’ve no doubt it would be best for the party for the numbers not to add up for us, or to turn a offer down, but with such an unappetising cocktail of parties at the moment, the country would be far better with Liberal influence.

  • Eddie Sammon writes :
    “……but it frustrates me that I can’t figure out why Lib Dem poll ratings are so low.”
    I used to do weekend car boot sales a few years ago. I would often encounter a wonderful old lady, who meticulously, set up her decorating table, and then lay out her bric-a -brac very carefully, only to (repeatedly), pack all of it away unsold, by 2.30pm and take it all home. One weekend, this delightful and genteel old lady, didn’t appear. To this day, I have no idea what happened to her,…. or her bric-a- brac,… that nobody wanted?

  • I can’t see anyway that Clegg could go into coalition with Labour or Labour/SNP, there’s just too much bad blood. It would need a complete change of leadership and that’s not going to happen unless the LibDems lose most of their seats, which would give them little or no influence. By being in partnership with the Tories they have already lost a certain amount of their identity, which in my view is one of the reasons they are doing so poorly in elections and the polls. Voters have more or less forgot about them. If they join another coalition with the Tories or Tory/UKIP I think they will just be recognised as a slightly “wet” branch of the Tories. It’s very difficult for them, but to retain or regain their own identity I think they need a good length of time in opposition.

  • Philip Thomas 22nd Mar '15 - 5:26pm

    I think if it is possible to form a stable coalition with the Labour party we have to at least negotiate for one. If the talks break down because Labour are too authoritarian, so be it, but if we refuse a coalition with Labour without negotiating then in effect we only do deals with the Tory party- which is wrong in principle but also a terrible vote loser.

  • I think whatever the outcome of the next election if neither of the 2 main parties can not form a majority government, Liberal Democrats and the other smaller parties should at least agree to a 12 month confidence & Supply arrangement.

    Labour and Liberal Democrats are going to be severely strapped for cash after fighting this election and need some time to raise funds.
    The Tories have plenty of spare cash in the coffers and plenty of backers to fund an early 2nd election, say 4-6 months after the May results. They would stand a good chance of wining a majority a 2nd time round if Labour and Libdems did not have the funds to put up a 2nd fight.

  • If numbers added up, of course Labour would negotiate. If you look at all the insistent questions pressed on Labour leaders about any possibility of a coalition or even a ‘deal’ with SNP; Labour figures are careful not to reject a coalition with Lib Dems.

    I rather doubt that Labour would be able enough to appeal to Lib Dem Party members. A negotiation with Conservatives would be more difficult in this respect as, having been in coalition, they have nothing new to offer or their previous bad faith precludes a convincing offer.

    David Evan’s comment illustrates the difficulties: the cause of (Social) Liberalism as a political outlook, Lib Dems in local government and the needs of the country are not the same and sacrifices cannot be infinitely stretched. In the end Lib Dems are highly dependent on the local base. David Evan’s characterisation of “disaster” really applies to local representation, however it would have been naïve to have imagined that coalition in difficult economic times would not have had a negative impact that would have affected local representation. It is possible to conclude however that the Party is no longer in a position to put the needs of the country before all else.

    Yet Bob Barr is right: we cannot both give out a message of achievement and disavow the concept of coalition, but I do not think that this was Steel’s message. Steel generally diappoints me these days, but I think he was simply commenting on the realities of the situation rather than making policy prescriptions.

  • Conor McGovern 22nd Mar '15 - 7:01pm

    Martin, your conclusion – that we’re no longer able to put the needs of the country before all else – reminds me of Nick Clegg’s flawed mantra about putting the national interest before party interests. What he doesn’t seem to realise is that you can’t keep sacrificing party interests over and over again in the name of the national interest, leaving us with a smaller and smaller base, when it’s in the national interest for us to have a strong liberal voice in Parliament and, at times, government. This requires brief spells in opposition (at most, loosely supporting a minority government with C&S) to revisit our values and set out new and radical policies.
    Of course, if Clegg had dealt our collective hand more astutely in government, we might not have lost so much support and would be in a much better position to enter a fresh coalition with either the Tories or Labour.

  • It is surely best for the country and in our interests as a Party if the electorate comes to like the idea of coalition governments, as is the norm in most other European countries. If they see chaos after May and a minority government that takes an early opportunity to precipitate an election, we will likely lose any influence for another generation. If we prop up a minority government we get to influence legislation of course, but not the way it is implemented. We have had great influence on execution of policy where we have had cabinet ministers (and Steve Webb and Norman Lamb), but rather less where we haven’t. We seemed to have particularly lacked influence on Foreign Policy and on the Home Office and in a future coalition we might want to think about the departments where we can best protect the soul of the Party.

  • Julian Tisi 22nd Mar '15 - 8:37pm

    A very good article and I agree with Caron. Confidence and supply is surely the worst of all worlds. As we have no idea how the election will pan out, it’s probably best to keep our options now but I hope that if we are in a position to go into coalition with a deal we can live with then we really should. This is where we need our negotiating team to be as tough as nails, unequivacol on our red lines and ready to walk away if the deal is no good. But I think David Steel is completely wrong. Our message is that coalition is good for Britain and that the Lib Dems are the guarantors of fairness and economic responsibility. So how, if we return enough MPs to go into another coalition, could we say “actually, we’d prefer to duck out for a bit and recharge our values “(what a ridiculous turn of phrase). As Lord Ashcroft’s poll appears to confirm, the people who vote for us appear to want us to moderate the Tories or Labour in government. We owe it to those voters, if given the chance, to at least try our hardest to do just that.

  • Hear hear Julian Tisi

  • Given the budget and Conservative manifesto hints, will we get their manifesto before the debates? I can never support another Conservative coalition. I would resign from the national party whilst supporting the local council members, something I have been tempted to do before. But Labour is no more attractive. I think the time is to look at all the lost local members and elected members and go back to grass roots.

  • The Lib Dems are still reliant on Labour leaning tactical votes to hold seats, so I don’t buy the idea that a coalition with Labour will lose “right” leaning Lib Dems because there simply are not that many of them. In fact the shift of the Lib Dems towards the economic Right is plainly the root cause of the lost votes in the first place and some of us cling on in the hope that this will sink in and the Lib Dems can go back to being what we voted for.

  • Yes David Steel is a wise old head, he reads the PARTY mood. If we want to finally kill ourselves off then we will do so within another coalition. Let us hope there is a majority government after May then such questions are academic.
    96% of our voters may be happy but they represent 7% of the elctorate. What about the other 93%? They are the ones we have to target if we want their support and obtain this magical surge which Caron dreams of..

  • It would be one thing if the last five years had only impacted on the party’s voters, and not the party itself. I think any question of coalition would have to raise the question of whether the leadership has the expertise to manage the impact of coalition on the party itself. Being in coalition with a party on the right has had a decimating experience on the left of the party – will continuing that course continue the decimation? Equally so, would a coalition on the left decimate the party’s right?

    I kinda liked the old broad church Lib Dems. It gave to me an impression of a family that contained contradictions, but was mostly concerned at carrying the whole family forward. I get the feeling that currently the drivers are so concerned with the road ahead no one knows or cares who’s on the back seat or if the boot’s open.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Mar '15 - 11:07pm

    A point that I haven’t seen mentioned on here is the benefits of having people with ministerial experience in the party. That has got to count for something.

    On the other side I sometimes think of those at the bottom of society and want to squeeze every last penny out of the Conservatives, or whoever the biggest party would be, but if we had that attitude then we would pay all politicians the minimum wage! The party has got to be able to attract top talent too.

  • I am quite sure that if the result of the last elections had been a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, Nick Clegg would have been in all respects less deferential, more combative, more independent, more inclined to push a distinct Liberal Democrat position, and would certainly have been out of the coalition by this time.

    The problem is not with coalitions in the abstract; the problem is with this coalition, and in particular the fact that Nick treats Cameron like his house prefect.

  • Bill Le Breton 23rd Mar '15 - 7:49am

    David -1. Ah someone who knows the difference between a house prefect and a school prefect – subtle analysis and I’m with you.

  • William Jones 23rd Mar '15 - 7:57am

    Lord Steel wasn’t too keen on a coalition last time, especially one with the Tories. However, he does have a point. We should not go into any coalition unless we get a proper deal on political reform. That includes elected Lords, PR in local & national government and proper funding probably state funding of political parties. Another hastily negoitated coalition deal that guts the party will be the end of us. Perhaps a little time having a minority government would show the country that a coalition with the Lib Dems in it wasn’t too bad after all.

  • Good article Caron and I agree with Julian Tisi’s comment.

    I’m not surprised that 96% of Lib Dems voters would be happy for the party to be in another coalition . I’m one of them and joined the party last year because I was, and remain, impressed with the Lib Dems performance in government.

  • matt (Bristol) 23rd Mar '15 - 9:08am

    Well, of course it depends on what is on the table and how many seats we have.
    That said, does anyone seriously believe:
    a) we can get as good an offer (particularly on constitutional reform) as 2010 out of either major party?
    b) we will gain seats so that we increase our iinfluence?
    c) The risk to the country of instability from a minority government is as great as it was in 2010?

    No? So why go into coalition?

  • Sadie Smith 23rd Mar '15 - 9:46am

    There is likely to be great unease about anything resembling the last five years. We have got some good policies through but made huge mistakes. The Party should have taken into Government some cynical old hands as advisers.
    We have done a lot to keep fairness but the big money has gone on mistakes.
    Ironically there might be a chance of some constitutional reform just because of the number of small parties, but having seen Labour’s fake promise in the Pact and the derision of the Tories this Parliament I am not sure it would be useful.
    David Steel, when arguing a case as Leader would say ‘ the country will never forgive us if we don’t do this or that.’ I thought the country would not care. Nick has played the same card but at least had an Agreement with the Tories which looked reasonable. Problems have been in areas either not covered or ignored by MPs.

  • matt (Bristol) 23rd Mar '15 - 10:00am

    Oh, and two other thoughts which are (sort-of) related:
    – If we can rule out coalition with UKIP and the SNP, when are we going to rule out coalition with the DUP?
    – What happened to Labour’s demand for Clegg to step down as the price of coalition with them? It’s not something they seem very keen to talk about.

  • Just my 2 cents coalition with the Conservative party would make sense and I doubt you would be hit a second time as electorate may well now expect it. Coalition with Labour far more risky as it may well open issues like potential break of UK if SNP have a say not a great image for the party of EU in. I would sooner fight a EU referendum than another Scottish independence vote.

  • Nick Collins 23rd Mar '15 - 10:57am

    So, if you go into coalition with the Tories again, will LibDem MPs be whipped to vote for the referendum which Cameron has promised in an abortive attempt to appease UKIP?

  • I agree with what Sadie Smith says.

    As a cynical old hand, I declare an interest.

  • What a sad reflection of statistical manipulation when Matt Smith tweeted 96% of Lib Dem voters would be happy for the party to be in coalition. That is 96% of the 4% who still say they will vote Lib Dem. If we want to be an irrelevant party in coalition go there. If we actually want to be a party delivering Liberal Democracy across the country, we have to understand the way Nick has handled being in coalition has been a disaster for Liberal Democracy and only fundamental change will start the long journey to recovery. And that means some of us have to stop clinging to the nearest weak statistic that floats past in an effort to pretend we were right all along.

  • Nick Collins 23rd Mar '15 - 11:18am

    @ David Evans. Exactly. I wonder what percentage of the people who voted LlibDem in 2010 would support another coalition. Not a lot, apparently, since it seems that only a handful of them are currently proposing to do vote LD again.

  • Nick Collins 23rd Mar '15 - 11:22am

    Sorry about the superfluous “do”.

  • As someone who first joined the party in 1979 despite the leadership of David Steel, which never was to my taste, so it’s a very rare event for me to say that I agree with him. He is spot on, it’s just a shame he couldn’t bring himself to say it earlier.

    I wonder if it is a factor in his thinking that he was leader during the last truly awful national general election campaign, in 1987. That was also a campaign low on Liberalism and effectiveness which was based on sacrificing some to save others.

  • Definitely agree with David Steel

    Definitely agree we need to ‘recharge our values’

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Mar '15 - 11:42am

    Reporting of the Liberal Democrats in the national media seems to consist entirely of journalists speaking to Nick Clegg and “sources close to Nick Clegg”, and putting out what they say as what the whole of the Liberal Democrats thinks. Very occasionally, a slightly different voice is heard, though it still has to someone well entrenched in the “Westminster Bubble”, as to national media journalists that IS politics, although anything very much different in likely to be reported in the usual exaggerated tones where what we might call “debate” they call “back-stabbing” or similar.

    So, from this, the national media is putting it about that this is now all the Liberal Democrats care about – remaining in Coalition. I can see that Nick Clegg and those surrounding him would regard it as a great wrench to be pulled away from that, and if “sources close to the leader” are spads whose jobs rely on the party being “in government”, of course they are going to put it that way.

    If that is how the party is seen, we are doomed. People will see a vote for the Liberal Democrats as a vote for THIS government. As this government is largely Conservative in composition and has policies reflecting that, they will see voting Liberal Democrat as just another way of voting Conservative. It’s something you might do if you’re Conservative-inclined but live in one of those constituencies which has a Liberal Democrat MP, but you’re unlikely to do it anywhere else, as if this government is what you like, you’ll vote Conservative. The National Liberals remained in a shadow existence in this way for decades. Even the Liberal Party in the 1950s relied in local pacts with the Conservatives to retain enough seats not to disappear entirely from Parliament. But the rebirth of the party required breaking away from that.

    David Steel, of course, was an early part of that rebirth. I guess he’s still got enough clout in the Westminster Bubble to be listened to. He is quite right, for the reasons I’ve given above, most ordinary Liberal Democrats DON’T want this current coalition to continue. We need to get this message out in order to save the party, and Nick Clegg and his spads certainly aren’t going to do it. It’s odd, for those of us who are on the left of the party and saw Steel as the Clegg of his day (i.e. leading the party from the right) now to find him, not for the first time, as our ally against Clegg.

    We’ve had a lot of very unfair coverage since the Coalition was formed, and very little in the way of objective and realistic commentary. It’s generally taken the form of first reporting the compromises reached as if the Liberal Democrats were whole-heartedly in favour of them and would have done the same in they had a majority, and then reporting any clarification of this which points out that our ideal would be somewhat different as some sort of hypocritical U-turn. Mostly it’s the usual way in which the media writes up the story of what it wants us to be first, and then reports us in terms of how close we are to what it said we should be.

    I’m sorry that the message of the different sort of way that doing politics in a multi-party way just hasn’t really got across. It’s still getting reported as if with 57 MPs we could somehow have got both other parties to jump all our way and have a government that was 100% Liberal Democrat in policy, so we are bad people for not having managed it, or bad people because we have managed it but “Liberal Democrat policy” turns out to be somewhat different from what we said pre-election.

    If we are electorally punished for that, which seems likely, I think it’s fair enough to say “OK, people didn’t like what we did last time, so this time we won’t do it”. So I certainly don’t think we should be eager to join a coalition unless we really do get a much higher share of the vote than the opinion polls suggest.

  • John Whitney 23rd Mar '15 - 11:51am

    Yes David Steele has hit the nail on the head, we should support a Labour minority government but no “Coalition”!
    No more tories!

  • Definitely agree with Edna –>

    Edna 23rd Mar ’15 – 11:34am
    Definitely agree with David Steel

    Definitely agree we need to ‘recharge our values’

  • I personally agree with what David Steel says, but disagree with him saying so publically at this stage. His words czrry weight and, even with good intentions, provides ammo for journalists to try and tie Nick and others up in knots.

    Like Tim Farron, best to keep lips bit on some subjects untill after the election as such comments won’t do much to help.

    Not a personal criticism, just that it doesn’t help – now is the time for playing only as a team

  • Denis Loretto 23rd Mar '15 - 2:36pm

    I am one of those who thinks that history will be much kinder to the Lib Dems for what we have done in the last 5 years than current commentators. Given the national and international situation we inherited (let’s not give ALL the blame to the previous Labour government) and the complete absence of any track record of full scale peacetime coalition government in the UK, the fact that we are finishing the 5 year task , having throughout shown the world a solid administration of considerable competence (yes – competence, just you constant negative bloggers try to run this awkward country any better) and got well down the road to economic security is almost beyond belief. Yes, we should have got across more strongly just how the Lib Dem element punched above its weight both in positive achievement and in stopping the Tories from following their worst instincts -in other words we have probably done better for the country than for our own party interests. We must do our best prior to the election to improve that but in this thread we are taking about what we do after the election. I am not enthused by this “Let’s opt out and recharge our values stuff”. We’ve lost our virginity now – the days of the “good old Lib Dems, they’ll never actually do anything but always worth listening to” are over. If we do get enough seats to be in there pitching then in there pitching is where we have got to be. In the meantime let’s shut up about it and get on with the election campaign. Just think how many leaflets I could have got delivered in the time I’ve been writing this!

  • David-1 and Bill Le Bretton, not having had the benefit of the expensive education it would seem you have both had, please enlighten me as to the difference between a House Prefect and a School Prefect.

  • I think we are in danger of dismissing the 9% or 7 or 4% of voters who are still going to vote for us. If we can trust the Ashcroft polls then these voters seem to get what the party has done over the last 5 years and would like us to continue with a coalition. Surely what the Party should be doing is looking at those voters, the things they like about us, how we have convinced them to vote for us agai n and why they like Coalition Government. This would help us to get our message across to other voters.

  • Discussion of hypothetical outcomes of the election is very much a minefield for Lib Dems, as it is (fortunately for us) for other parties too.

    If there is not the thin Tory majority that I think most likely, the outcome, as Tony Greaves has outlined, could be very messy and only really resolvable by a new approach to politics in Westminster. The next most likely result would be Tories as the largest party, but with SNP in a position to be able to render a minority Tory government unworkable. In which case a Lib-Lab coalition would depend on tacit SNP support. This is not something to be ensnared in. Alex Salmond has already explained how government would have to proceed o a vote by vote basis. In such circumstances, I would have thought that we should try to work with the SNP (in a new spirit of politics that Tony Greaves suggests) to attempt to facititate reasonably smooth running of government.

    In the meantime, our strategy is simple and not so different to other parties: we make the case for maximising Lib Dem representation as beneficial for the country and that our duty is to respond constructively to whatever the voters and the electoral system deliver. Accordingly we do not, before the election, rule out any coalitions where there is sufficient room for policy agreement, nor any other arrangement be it ‘confidence and supply’ or agreement vote by vote.

    Beyond this, I think we should be critical of journalists who try to force other parties to commit themselves to refusing to work with others; such journalists should be told that they are undemocratically pressing politicians to reject an electoral outcome. Accordingly I think it is wrong for those on our side to appear to reject working with SNP a priori though not to reject coalition with UKIP, with whom we share almost nothing in common.

  • Steve Griffiths 23rd Mar '15 - 3:43pm

    Edna and John Tilley.

    We don’t need to “recharge our values”; we just need to return to what they used to be. The party may then get a few more activists out on the streets campaigning.

  • Phil Rimmer 23rd Mar '15 - 3:49pm

    @ ATF “now is the time for playing only as a team” – that’s all very well but our leader and the denizens of the Westminster Bubble decided long ago that over half of the team has to be sacrificed in order to try and save their sorry backsides. No, those of us who would see the party recover is values and votes after the General Election have a responsibility to speak out. Until just a few short weeks ago, those same people, when not attacking decent Liberals with reservations about the Coalition, spent most of their time snuggling up to the Tories! Team players? I don’t think so.

  • Steve Giffiths: we just need to return to what they used to be suggests that we have nothing to learn from the experience of involvement in government.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Mar '15 - 4:11pm

    I’ve just read right through this interesting thread, provoked by David Steel’s comments which seem to me to be accurate and sensible. (I have not always agreed with David in the past 50 years since I went to the Borders along with hordes of other English Liberal students to help get him elected, but I declare an interest as a life-long Steel fan).

    But most of the comments here seem to be statements of what people would like to see, not what may be possible or impossible. I refer you all to me pieces below on minority government, and on the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, part of the context within which all options have to be considered.

    Martin – thanks for coming back to this issue. But I am not suggesting “a new spirit of politics” in an all-encompassing Rose Garden kind of being terribly nice to each other. I am suggesting an end to majoritarianism and a recognition that the processes of politics – as robust or even brutal as they sometimes are – have to take place in a different context.

    By the way, there are two rules here. (1) in post-election negotiations, do not expect any politicians to adhere to positions they set out before the election, if it’s in their own interest to do something differently. (I refer to arrangements not policies though they may be flexible too). (2) Do not underestimate the ability of leaders to get on with other leaders that they have been denouncing as the close mates of Satan for the past few weeks, or years, or for ever.

    On coalition per se, I do find that a significant number of the members of this party tell me that they are hanging on to May 8th but that another coalition with the Tories will send them into retirement. It is my personal view that it would finish the party off and at the next General Election we would not exist as a UK wide force.


  • SIMON BANKS 23rd Mar '15 - 4:28pm

    I think David Steel has overstated the case a bit, but with sound arguments. I’m suspicious of Matt Smith’s infographic. Even if that figure is right, that’s not 96% who would be happy with any specific coalition, irrespective of the partner or the deal we could get – which is not likely to be wonderful if we lose 40% plus of our MPs. Moreover, most of the membership as a whole might be happy with continuing coalition – after all, many of those not happy have left and been replaced by centrally-recruited people, largely not activists, who like Nick Clegg and our record in government. The problem is that there is undoubtedly deep dissatisfaction in the activist body and though the activists can be outvoted, the party can’t do without them – indeed, can’t do without them being passionate and full of fight.

    Where David Steel’s comments are healthy and timely is that Nick Clegg and “sources close to Nick Clegg” are currently managing to give voters the impression that we’re desperate to stay in power at all costs, especially if it’s with the Conservatives.

  • Denis Loretto “we have probably done better for the country than for our own party interests.”

    The truth is, if the Lib Dems had acted in the country’s interests by stopping the hugely expensive and uncalled-for re-organisation of the NHS, you would have, at one stroke, won back many voters by demonstrating that you really were ‘curbing the worst excesses of the Tories’. Why Nick Clegg did not do this is beyond me, as it would have been in the interests of both the country AND the Party. Instead he made a stand on boundary changes which is not a subject as close to voters’ hearts but was to the benefit of the Lib Dems.

    Now it just sounds hollow to say the Lib Dems will stop the Tory’s doing barmy things or that you would give ‘heart’ to the Torys. When we hear about people’s benefits being stopped for being five minutes late for an interview and people committing suicide because of the welfare reforms, well that’s a heavy price to pay for the economic recovery. I would rather pay more tax than see people begging on the streets which I am sure will happen if we have another Tory/LibDem Coalition. I still remember Cardboard City in London during the Thatcher years and I don’t wish to go back to that, something which I , sadly, no longer believe the Lib. Dem parliamentarians would stop.

    On your other point I do agree with you that a party such as the !ubDems cannot ‘opt out’ of coalition government. That is what you believe in, isn’t it?? Isn’t that the whole point of PR – thst it forces parties to work together?. The problem is not being in Coalition but how the leadership has handled it.

  • Peter Galton 23rd Mar '15 - 7:12pm

    We will just have to wait and see, but I am not too keen to go into Coalition again.

  • i was strongly in favour of the coalition in 2010, Next time I am against the party being in coalition with anyone. British people do not understand coalitions and this one had done enormous damage to the party. In Germany the Free Democrats went from 93 seats in the Bundestag to none and that was with a PR system. In Ireland the Greens were wiped out at the last election because they were in coalition. We will have to rebuild after the next election, otherwise we may find ourselves replaced by the Greens.

  • ” They clearly like what we’ve been able to deliver in government, because, as Matt Smith’s infographic shows us…. ”

    I may have asked this question before — but who is Matt Smith?

  • David Evans 24th Mar '15 - 1:12pm

    … and why does he tweet duff statistics?

  • Peter Watson 24th Mar '15 - 2:29pm

    @JohnTilley “I may have asked this question before — but who is Matt Smith?”
    @David Evans “… and why does he tweet duff statistics?”

    Matt Smith is Digital Communications Manager at Policy Exchange (

    “Policy Exchange is the UK’s leading think tank. As an educational charity our mission is to develop and promote new policy ideas which deliver better public services, a stronger society and a more dynamic economy.” (
    “Policy Exchange is a British right-wing think tank, created in 2002 and based in London. The Daily Telegraph has described it as “the largest, but also the most influential think tank on the right”.” (

  • Nick Collins 24th Mar '15 - 3:20pm

    So how does such a “think tank” know what 96% of LibDems are thinking? And how does it define a LibDem:
    – – members of the LibDem Party?
    people who voted LibDem in 2010?
    people who might vote LibDem on 7 May?
    Or is it a “thought “plucked out of the air (or fished out of the tank)?

  • Peter Watson 24th Mar '15 - 3:56pm

    @Nick Collins “So how does such a “think tank” know what 96% of LibDems are thinking?”
    It is based on Lord Ashcroft’s polling, 9 March: and
    When asked: “Some people think that after the general election next year neither Labour nor the Conservatives will have enough MPs to form a government on their own, and the party with the most seats may need to form a coalition with one or more of the smaller parties. Would you be happy or unhappy to see each of the following parties becoming part of a coalition government after the next election?”, of those expressing an intention to vote Lib Dem, 36% were “Very Happy” and 60% “Fairly Happy” to see Lib Dems in a coalition government.
    This 96% corresponds to 33 of the 34 Lib Dem voters in a poll with 1003 respondents. (Actually the 34 Lib Dem voters are 28 “real” people before weighting is applied).

  • David Evans 24th Mar '15 - 4:18pm

    28 real people! As I said, ‘duff statistics’.

  • Paul In Wokingham 26th Mar '15 - 7:54am

    Re 96% LD support for a new coalition: the British Social Attitude Survey was released today. It specifically asks about attitudes to coalition government based on party affiliation. In this survey, 50% of self-identified Lib Dems say they would support a coalition government. But as with the 96% result, the sample size is very small: only 48 respondents identified as Lib Dem.

    There are two more interesting results from this survey. Firstly, general support for a coalition has plunged: In 2010 48% wanted single-party government and 40% wanted a coalition. By 2014, 62% wanted single-party government and only 28% wanted coalition. That will surely be a significant influence in any poll shift in the next 6 weeks.

    Secondly, support for Lib Dems has collapsed since 2010. While support for Con and Lab is roughly the same the number of self-identified Lib Dems fell from 138 to 48. That is not news in itself but it reinforces the point that many of those who formerly supported the party have moved elsewhere and presumably that indicates unhappiness with this coalition.

    Perhaps that tweet should be “17% of those who voted LD in 2010 now support coalition government”.

  • Bill le Breton 26th Mar '15 - 9:11am

    Paul in Wokingham shows that we just have not played ‘coalition’ well and this has harmed the case that no overall majority (NOM) need not be a disadvantage for the country or the parties in a coalition. For 40 years now Lib Dem council groups have recognised that NOM is almost an obligatory staging post on the way to a majority. And best practice in such conditions is well known and well established.

    Further evidence comes from YouGov’s recent ‘magapoll’ conducted 18 – 23 March (HT Britain Elects)

    Top 5 traits for Clegg :

    Out of his depth – 40%
    Weak – 37%
    Out of touch – 24%
    Indecisive – 22%
    Dishonest – 18%

    I have been a fulsome critic of Clegg for years, but I would never have blamed him for any of those five qualities. Yet there they are from the reaction of 8,000 respondents. That’s BRAND CLEGG. And they are brand Clegg because of the way he has chosen to play coalition – the very opposite way our council groups learned to play NOM.

    There, that’s a criticism: the arrogance not to realise that ‘ordinary’ councillors might know a lot more and have a lot more wisdom than he has.

  • There is an argument that the party needs time in opposition to rebuild and reject the view of Liberalism as presented by Nick Clegg and David Laws. However a political party exists to change society and the main way to achieve this is to be in government. Those of us who don’t share the vision of Nick Clegg et al, or have lost their council seat and want it back will not support another coalition with the Conservatives, while some will not support any coalition. Therefore David Steel is right there are many benefits from not being in a coalition after the election, but this does not mean that the majority of members necessary agree with him.

    I think it is possible for our leadership to want to go into another coalition with the Conservatives. We would be able to agree on increasing the personal allowance and education and NHS spending. The Conservatives might find it difficult to agree to our “five new green laws”. If we achieved all these in a new coalition agreement would the membership reject it, as it hasn’t rejected these dull five priorities? It is quite possible that Nick could get a special conference to agree another coalition.

    I think we should not have a formal coalition with Labour. Firstly because our leadership wants more cuts than Labour and for us to take that position in the next Parliament would finish us off as a party. It would be better to support Labour budgets only if they protected education and NHS spending at least as much as we want and they accepted the new personal allowances for April 2016 and April 2017 and continue to increase the personal allowance beyond 2017. (Also the leadership would want to ensure that free school meals for infants continued.) We could push for our five green laws and support other Labour laws on an issue by issue basis. We would not have to vote for things we disagreed with. Our MPs would be able to vote the way our conferences wanted them to. However if the leadership negotiated a coalition agreement with Labour I am not convinced a special conference would reject it.

  • Bill le Breton 26th Mar '15 - 4:20pm

    Michael BG, I am not sure we shouldn’t like to trade the further IT allowance in our plans for the 2015/20 parliament. The increase is clearly not the best way to spend £14 billion to help the poor, as it doesn’t impact the poor.

    The only reason we continue to push a higher IT allowance is because polls suggested that it was the only positive policy associated with us in the 2010/15 parliament and, continuing to advocate it, is a ‘smart’ way of keeping the policy and its ownership in the public mind.

    I am quite sure that if we were starting from here, without that need to remind people, then, we’d be committing that money in another direction. So, it could be rather like the Inheritance Tax reduction that the Tories were relieved to be able to blame us for having to drop in 2010.

  • David Evershed 31st Mar '15 - 12:29pm

    When the going gets tough the tough get going.

    The country is still in bad shape with £1.5 trillion debt; a £75 billion annual deficit; and low productivity.

    The Liberal Democrat party has a public duty to form a stable coalition government to improve things if it is in a position to do so.

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