It isn’t always good for the Lib Dems when Labour and the Tories agree

There are no shortage of lessons for the Lib Dems to learn from our time in Coalition, but one of the most important is to understand the ability of the two main parties to work together to stitch us up like a kipper.

The rule is simple. If the Lib Dems want to get across a particular interpretation of an event, and both Labour and Tories agree on a different interpretation, we’re not going to do it.

I’ll give an example: tax cuts for the rich.

For the 2012 budget, the Tories wanted to cut the top rate of tax from 50p to 40p. The Lib Dems did a deal: cut it to 45p but only if we raise other taxes from the richest so overall the rich pay more. A lot more. A combination of tax rises and closed loopholes did the trick, and the richest did indeed pay more tax under the Coalition than at any time under the previous Labour government.

But not many people know it. Most voters honestly believe the Lib Dems supported a tax cut for the richest.

Why? Simply because that false narrative served the interests of both Labour and Tories, so our message was squeezed out. Unless you followed Lib Dems on social media, the chances of you hearing anything about the other tax rises were virtually zero.

Labour, of course, were more than happy to have the Lib Dems and Tories portrayed as cutting taxes for the rich, which played into their message on both parties. They wanted to portray the Tories as hitting the poor and letting the wealthy off the hook, and to portray the Lib Dems as ineffectual Tory lap-dogs (a portrayal that was largely successful, despite being untrue).

The Tories also benefitted from it. They wanted to be seen as rewarding achievement and tax cuts for those who have worked hard enough to earn high incomes (not those lazy poor workers who deserve to be punished with lower tax credits) fitted their story to a tee.

With both big parties wanting to promote the same false story, the Lib Dems never stood a chance.

There are many other examples from the Coalition years, such as tuition fees. The warning for the Lib Dems is clear. If Labour and the Tories agree on an interpretation of events, regardless of how far that interpretation is from reality, the Lib Dems will always struggle to get our version across.

This lesson is doubly important when picking the issues to campaign on in the post-Coalition world. To get a hearing we need to have something distinctive and different to say – if Tim and Jeremy are saying the same thing, no prizes for guessing who’ll get quoted. But we also need to avoid issues where Labour and the Tories have a joint narrative very different to ours.

* Iain Roberts is the former leader of Stockport Liberal Democrats and Lib Dem Campaign Manager in Greater Manchester Mayoral election and for Cheadle constituency in the General Election

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12 Comments

  • Dave Orbison 27th Oct '15 - 3:14pm

    Iain just a small point salary (or wealth) is not directly proportional to ‘hard work’. That’s not to say people on larger salaries do not work hard but… It seems that Labour (and Tories) are at fault for opposing LibDems and the LibDem demise. Ah those stupid voters if only they could see through this. But as I think back over the days of the Coalition I didn’t notice any evidence that the LibDems were marginalised and prevented from access to the media. In fact it became something of a national joke that Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg couldn’t stop themselves being first up to bang the austerity drum. You couldn’t get away from Danny – he was obsessed with the need to keep public pay flat. He seemed to hate the public sector as time and time and time again he appeared demand pay freezes not just for one year but year-on-year. It was as if the deficit was the fault of all those public servants and they must be punished. So rather than admit the Coalition was a strategic and catastrophic mistake for the LibDems it seems the LibDem demise is now being put down to their political opponents. I have an alternative theory. The public and saw and knew exactly what the LibDems did in Coalition and voted accordingly.

  • You hit the nail on the head as to why coalition is so difficult: the other governing party want to present themselves as doing what they want. The opposition want to present us as doing nothing. The commentators in the media are by-and-large happy to shut us out (with honourable exceptions: the Indy and the FT spring to mind).

    This is something we need to address before ever considering another coalition again.

  • Dave – I’m not making any comment on the reason for the Lib Dem’s fall from grace – books could be written on the varying ideas. I simply make a practical point about campaigning.

    You’re right that the Lib Dems had more access to the media in 2010-15 than now, which makes the point all the more important. (I disagree with your theory on the demise of the Lib Dems by the way, but that’s a debate for another day, and with another person as I’m not really interested in having it!)

  • Daniel Henry 27th Oct '15 - 4:39pm

    Good post.

    Another good example is coalition fiscal and economic policy. After two years of economic stagnation, the coalition quietly altered its fiscal policy, slowing down austerity and investing far more in infrastructure, which helped stimulate the eventual growth we saw.

    However, it suited both Labour and the Tories to pretend that the government had stuck to an inflexible “Plan A”, which again left us squeezed.

    Very annoying.

  • David Evans 27th Oct '15 - 5:04pm

    A good article, clearly setting out the facts. The one problem we have is that although those of us in local government have known it for decades, Nick, Danny et al just didn’t get it at all. So when it was suggested to Nick at a conference in Bedford in 2012 that he should make more use of local government expertise, he got on his high horse, told us everyone was working very hard and ended the Q&A session.

    The real problem was though that no one senior seemed to want to do anything about it, preferring to believe it would all work out OK if someone else did it. Well guess what, if you spend your time waiting for someone else to do it, it gets done in the nastiest way possible.

  • @ Dave Orbison. ….. Agree with the thrust of your post……. To say that Clegg and Alexander were badly done to is to say the electorate were daft and got it wrong…….. As Fred Trueman said to a batsman who queried the umpire’s decision “look in the paper and see if it was out”. The biggest lesson to learn from the coalition years is to read the history books about what coalitions have done to the Liberals in. 1915, 1918, 1922 1931 and 1945.

    Also agree with how Alexander went out of his way to alienate the biggest single natural constituency of Lib Dem. support I.e. Local government employees.

  • I don’t entirely agree with that conclusion. Say both Labour and the Tories stand on one side of an issue – and there are any number of possibles – with much the same narrative. We stand opposite them with a different narrative. In that case we’ll be identified as the only ones against X, which is likely to lose us some support and gain us some – and sharpen our profile. A key issue here will be whether some opinion-formers outside the party leadership (voluntary organisations, the media, online pressure groups, well-known individuals with a following) take a similar line to us.

  • Iain Roberts

    “For the 2012 budget, the Tories wanted to cut the top rate of tax from 50p to 40p. The Lib Dems did a deal: cut it to 45p but only if we raise other taxes from the richest so overall the rich pay more. A lot more. A combination of tax rises and closed loopholes did the trick, and the richest did indeed pay more tax under the Coalition than at any time under the previous Labour government.

    But not many people know it. Most voters honestly believe the Lib Dems supported a tax cut for the richest.”

    Interesting article. Yes you are right, most people do think Lib Dems supported tax cuts for the rich (and technically they did of course vote through the income tax decrease). But the Lib Dems had an unprecedented level of media visibility and presence during the Coalition years. In addition, Nick Clegg had a weekly slot on LBC for years. He, and other Lib Dems had ample opportunity to set the record straight but neglected to do so. He also let Cameron veto his appearance on the Opposition debates which would have given him one last opportunity to put forward this argument. So if your charge is that the other parties communicated their message better than the Lib Dems, whose fault is that?

  • Simon,

    You’re right that if everyone agrees on what the question is, but we have a different answer to two other parties then that can be positive for us. That’s not quite the situation I’m talking about though.

    In my example, Labour and the Tories agreed that the question was “Is it right that the Government have cut taxes for the rich?” They had different answers of course, but left no room for our question.

  • Geoffrey Payne 28th Oct '15 - 12:24pm

    I think the ” combination of tax rises and closed loopholes” on the rich were effectively invisible to the general public, as indeed the way in which they are alluded to in this article.
    I wonder how much revenue was actually raised this way? I wonder whether the Tories would have implemented these policies anyway?
    If the Lib Dems had got the mansion tax as part of the deal, that would have been seen as the Lib Dems pulling their weight in government. If the Tories disagreed the Lib Dems we could have had a blazing public row and deadlock, with the Tories seen to be defending the rich.
    The problem was that the Coalition was all too cosy, with the Lib Dems forced out of their comfort zone on many issues such as benefit cuts, whilst the Tories largely stayed within theirs.
    The main criticism of the Lib Dems was that they were seen as weak, and voters wondered what was the point in voting for them. That may not be fair now, now that we see what the Tories true colours really are, but who says politics is fair?

  • Geoffrey,

    On the matter of tax, the evidence from the Treasury is clear – the Lib Dem changes did result in the tax bill for the richest rising significantly.

  • Geoffrey Payne 31st Oct '15 - 7:06am

    If it is true that the Lib Dems forced changes on taxes that the Tories didn’t want then that would be a good article for LDV. We are seeing now what the Tories were blocking because now they are undoing what we did. Air passenger duty is one tax that springs to mind, any others?

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