Is the Coalition failing the radical test?

One of the many great things about our party is its steadfast refusal to bow to media pressure. Take, as Exhibit A, the sweet joy of being a conference rep and voting down the leadership’s preferred policy option. We don’t care that it will be portrayed by the next day’s newspapers, as erroneous as it is inevitable, as a party split.

We are also a truly radical party. Most policies taken for granted today entered the pages of our policy documents long before Labour or the Conservatives sheepishly followed. Come next month I hope that gay marriage will be the latest example of that.

As the Coalition’s lifespan turns from weeks into months however I am becoming a tad concerned. We, and by that I mean not only us but our new friends too, are growing skittish. We are bowing to the media agenda and balking at radical ideas. Look at our party’s opposition to council housing proposals, and the speed with which Number 10 ditched the threat to free milk for some under-fives.

There are 1.8 million families on waiting lists for local authority housing, according to Shelter. In 81 local council areas people can expect to wait more than a decade before they reach the top of the list. In six areas, the wait is over 20 years, and the London boroughs of Barnet and Redbridge both have waits of more than 30 years – in other words, join the queue now and collect your new front door keys in 2040.

Is it really too radical for our party even to consider a policy that says that people given a council house at the age of, say, 25 should not have the automatic right to pass on the tenancy of that house to one of their children, grandchildren, nephews or nieces when they die half a century later? A grandchild may live for another 50 years, stay single but occupy a three-bedroom property, meaning that a council house stays with a single family for a century despite the fact that the actual economic need for housing support may only have existed for a short time. Meanwhile, families in desperate need are stuck in conditions that are temporary, overcrowded, or both.

And despite the hysteria, the consideration that public health minister Anne Milton was giving to the abolition of what remains of the 1946 School Milk Act should have been applauded by progressives. Instead of spending nigh on £60 million on a cup of warm milk for those children whose parents can afford the £4,500 average cost of 25 hours’ weekly nursery-based childcare, she instead wanted to look at both saving money and increasing help for children from the poorest households – often the ones not at nursery with its taxpayer-funded milk.

I have always hoped that we would make it into government, and we are now there. Let us not now throw that opportunity away and become like the timid, craven Labservative governments of the past. We are a radical party, we should be radical in government.

Stuart Bonar was the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for Plymouth Moor View in this year’s General Election, and blogs at

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Dominic Curran 11th Aug '10 - 4:20pm

    Stuart – I agree with you on the right of succession issue. But if you’re talking radicalism, how about building enough homes so that we don’t get stuck into this argument about rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, which is what is driving the debate about council tenancies? In other words, why don’t we engage in something that no party has done for over 30 years – and set out an ambitious plan to build the homes for our people that we and they need, creating jobs, tax revenue and well-planned communities in the process?

    I would say that arguing about how to divvy up what’s left of a shrinking pool of publicly-owned homes is the defeatist’s answer, not the radical’s.

  • Agreed; we should at least be pushing for many more policies to be enacted. Most of my friends’ major issue with the Lib Dems in government is that they’re not seen to be doing anything. Let the newspapers report imagined cracks in the coalition, I say, if it means that the public are hearing that we’re actually pushing our policies into the light.

  • Rob Sheffield 11th Aug '10 - 4:29pm

    Is the coalition ‘Radical’ ? If so is that radicalism ‘progressive’ and/or ‘positive’.

    Well Thatcher was a ‘radical’; Stalin enacted ‘radical’ change on his country’s economy and society.

    Radical should never automatically be assumed to be a positive attribute- as those of us who remember being in the Labour party in 1980-1983 remember only too well.

    That is mistaking ‘radical’ for ‘revolutionary’ or- more often these days- insurgent.

    Whether the moniker ‘radical’ is positive really does depend on both the nature of the ‘radical’ change enacted and what the impact is on ordinary people.

    For example: is it disruptive; does it frighten; will it improve people’s lives and their standards of living; is it simply change for change‘s sake at the behest of a small clique who wish to impose their ideological will on the majority etc ?

    In that context Nicholas and Simon I would assume have very different desires for their self-professed ‘radicalism’.

  • Dominic Curran 11th Aug '10 - 5:09pm

    Hi Stuart,

    I stood in Islington and know about our empty homes policy. it was a good policy as far as it went, but actually did little for London, which has the lowest ratio of empty homes for about 30 years. Most of those that remain are very hard to reach for local authorities or are second homes for wealthy people (Kensington and Chelsea has the second highest rate of empty homes of the London boroughs, and i’m sure they’re not on no-go estates). So the policy was pretty rubbish for the city with the greatest (i think) housing need in the country. London has 82,000 empty homes and 353,000 households (or roughly a million people) on waiting lists. How did our policy solve that? And how likely is it that even half of those homes could really be brought back into use?

    There’s also the issue that a billion pounds might be better spent building ten new blocks of flats than chasing the foreign-domiciled owners of various individual buildings across a myriad of local authorities, which, even if successful in purchasing and converting empty properties in areas of housing need (unlikely), would leave councils with little bits and bobs of new homes all over the shop, adding to the administrative burden of looking after them all (after all, it’s cheaper to maintain a new building with 10 flats than to maintain ten flats across a large area with different building ages, qualities, construction materials and neighbours).

    Borrow to build a new generation of homes for all. If we did that, we’d wrongfoot Labour, boost the economy, make life better for tens of thousands of families, and deserve to be re-elected.

  • David Morton 11th Aug '10 - 5:27pm

    Isn’t this just a 6th form debating society style ruse to potray your opponents as not “radical” or “afraid” ,” run(ing) away “, “skittish” ” bowing to pressure” and “balking” when really what you mean is that they just don’t agree with you?

    The problem with 6th form society debating tricks is once you’ve been taught them they are easy.

    So tell me Stuart , what is “radical” about rolling over when a multi millionaire Tory Prime Minister uses saloon bar style, ill informed remarks at a public PR stunt to trample over hard won tenancy protection for newly bereaved widows and orphans in social housing?


  • Peter Laubach 11th Aug '10 - 5:54pm

    Stuart, I’m broadly with you, but I too struggle with words like ‘radical’. Is it a badge of honour, or an insult, for Left, Right, both or neither, depending upon the policy, the proposer or the commentator? In other words, does it really mean anything?
    Another word I struggle with is ‘reactionary’. It seems to be a term of abuse usually directed at the Right from the Left, but does it really mean anything? Literally reacting to a situation /proposition seems completely neutral to me!

  • Mark Morris 11th Aug '10 - 5:58pm

    “Is it really too radical for our party even to consider a policy that says that people given a council house at the age of, say, 25 should not have the automatic right to pass on the tenancy of that house to one of their children, grandchildren, nephews or nieces when they die half a century later? A grandchild may live for another 50 years, stay single but occupy a three-bedroom property, meaning that a council house stays with a single family for a century despite the fact that the actual economic need for housing support may only have existed for a short time.”

    This is not in fact entirely accurate. Despite what has appeared in the media in the last week it is not actually the case that council and social housing tenants have an absolute right to pass on a specific house or flat to any relative. The rights of succession are not quite as generous as some people have been claiminig.

    For more information see:

  • David Allen 11th Aug '10 - 6:19pm

    Yet another ostrich propaganda technique, I fear.

    We should support the coalition, because we wouldn’t want to give any ground to those annoying Labour trolls who attack us. We should support the coalition, because well, look at all the little concessions we won, like a rise in capital gains tax rate and er um. We should support the coalition, because of all the unspecified marvellous Lib Demmy things we are going to do in the future.

    And now – We should support the coalition, because we can take some Tory policies like milk-snatching and reducing council tenants’ rights, and we can re-spin and re-brand them. Never mind the obvious fact that the Tories’ motivation is quite clearly based on their contempt for the lower classes. If we use some clever sophistry, we can make these policies look good. So, milk-snatching would be a good thing if we took the money we saved and used it to help the poor even more than they would have been helped by getting the milk, wouldn’t it? Hey presto, spin operation successfully completed, bad transmuted into good. Right-wing policy rebranded as progressive.

    Well, you are successfully kidding a lot of Lib Dem members, who desperately want to believe that we are in the right, that we are entilted to sacrifice a few-odd principles for the sake of power. You are not kidding the voters, whose eyes are more open, and who can recognise an ostrich when they see one.

  • David Allen 11th Aug '10 - 7:17pm

    Stuart, you’ve found me out. I have to tell you, Ed and David and Ed were all clustered around the screen when your posting hit the World Wide Web. They were pretty shaken, I can tell you. They temporarily abandoned their leadership campaigns and spent hours drafting a rebuttal, which they then rushed out to, er, me. Gosh, I’m now feeling almost as self-important as you are!

    (Now I’ve reached these dizzy heights in the Labour hierarchy, I’d better keep quiet about my Alliance / Lib Dem membership since 1981, hadn’t I?)

  • Dominic Curran 12th Aug '10 - 9:27am

    Andrew – i must disagree with you. If anything, it’s the Tories who see everyone as dole scroungers, criminals and greedy etc. I would say that most Labour party members, like most libdem party members, are motivated by the idea that people are fundamentally good, if only they were given the chance to show it.

  • Stuart – much of the “milk money” surely goes to Sure Start schemes (which are used by many parents who cannot afford private nursery fees), and there is also a government grant that pays for ALL children over the age of 3 to attend nurseries for 2 sessions a week, essentially free of charge.

    And of the parents that do pay private nurseries, many (most?) do so because they need both parents to work, to pay the mortgage etc. It’s not a case of being “able to afford” private nursery fees, more a case of having to bring in two wages to afford to pay the mortgage, and hence having to pay childcare costs.

    It’s this sort of simplistic, non-evidence based thinking (about using the milk money to help to”poorest families”, even though many of them are already benefiting from the milk money itself) that dogs the Lib Dems and leads to the recent poll showings.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Aug '10 - 12:00pm

    The word “radical” means “pertaining to the root”. In politics it means a willingness to question assumptions and seek the deep causes of some problem, rather than just apply surface measures to alleviate it.

    Fiddling around with the rules for transmission of tenancy of the remaining council houses is not radical. A radical approach to solving housing problems involves looking much more deeply at why the distribution of housing is so much not according to need. A radical approach to housing involves such things as questioning the concept of the “housing ladder” and of home-ownership being an untaxed cash-cow.

    Anyone who is willing to ask the same question about transmission of private ownership to heirs that is being asked here about council tenancy (and the private ownership transmission is automatic, while as Mark Morris notes, transmission of council tenancy is only in some circumstances) is truly “radical”. Anyone who is not willing to ask that question is not radical, because they are unwilling to go to the root of the problem.

  • David Allen 12th Aug '10 - 1:56pm

    “It strikes me, that what you make of the coalition largely comes down to whether you’re willing to look at each argument and judge it on its merits, or whether you’re pre-minded to judge every action remotely linked to the Conservatives as the dark satanic masochism of a constructed poor crushing bogeyman.”

    Hmm. It seems to me that the Lib Dem party line is to look at each and every Tory argument and find something good to say about it. The pro-coalition propagandists who write for the Party on this site vary in their tone and some are less offensive than others – for example George Kendall allows himself a limited amount of honest dissent before coming down in favour of the coalition – but their overall aims are pretty clear. We are to be brought into line. Well, what I am trying to do is to stop that happening. I may sometimes be a bit intemperate about that, but that’s because I hate to see my party ally itself with a bunch of neocons. Stuart Bonar thinks I’m being hard on him because he couched his argument in rational terms, but that doesn’t automatically make him right. In my view, his is a desperate effort to make a sow’s ear look like a silk purse in order to defend the coalition.

    “Labour of course don’t see the good in anyone, don’t trust them to do anything for themselves, and believe state control and nannying is the only way to possibly achieve anything; they don’t think anything good comes from anyone but the Labour party, so it’s no surprise which way they go…”

    Well now Andrew Tennant, do you really believe that ludicrously overheated statement? Who’s being a little bit one-sided there? Of course I do to some extent share the view that Labour place excessive faith in the goodness of state power (otherwise I don’t suppose I’d be a Lib Dem), but it does no good to see your opponents in terms of such crude caricatures. If we’re rational about it, Tony Blair’s revolution got rid of much of Labour’s excessive faith in the State. Indeed, in the good old days BC (Before Coalition), when we had our own brains to think with, we were often to be found opposing Labour’s undue cosiness toward the private sector, for example in academy sponsorship, PFI schemes etcetera. But now of course we must suppress any such objectivity and join with the Tories, the Daily Mail and Rush Limbaugh in ruthlessly slagging off anyone to the left of Camerlegg!

  • Dominic Curran 12th Aug '10 - 4:25pm

    Stuart – of course you are right to say that we should all be less partsan, and i would add, more mature. But spend a day on the Conservative Home website, as i have done during these slow august days, and tell me at the end you don’t want to take out most of the comment-makers and slap some toelrance and education into their narrow little minds.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Aug '10 - 10:49pm

    David Allen

    Hmm. It seems to me that the Lib Dem party line is to look at each and every Tory argument and find something good to say about it.

    I’m happy to agree with this. I’ve accepted and defended the coaltion as the only viable option after the 2010 election, I can even accept that our negotiating strength in it is quite weak so we can’t execpt that much out of it.

    I’m not happy, however, about the way our party high-ups are churning out the message that we’re all ecstatic that a few of them have comfy jobs and that lots of wonderful LibDem policy is getting through. It isn’t working – it’s just giving ammunition to our opponents. We ought at the top to be much more honest and say this is an arrangement made out of necessity, we’ve done it because we had to because that’s how the people of our country foolishly voted, we can maybe get a few liberal things out of it – mostly those things that don’t hit the wealth of the rich – but what this governent is doing just isn’t what we would do if we were governing alone or were the senior partner or even were still the junior partner but with more clout due to more support in the country and a less twisted electoral system.

  • charliechops1 13th Aug '10 - 5:13pm

    UniversAl benefits, if properly administered, can ensure that everyone who is entitled to a benefit recieves it. A cost of this, unfortunately, is that some people will abuse the sustem. It is easy to quote an example of the absurd or underserving but these cases are the price we pay for reaching the people who need help most. Simplifying the system will have the paradoxical outcome that more people, deserving claimants, will apply. The outcome could be higher not lower expenditure.

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