Lessons of Coalition (10): what do the Lib Dems need to learn from the first 3 years?

ldv coalition lessonsLibDemVoice is running a daily feature, ‘Lessons of Coalition’, to assess the major do’s and don’ts learned from our experience of the first 3 years in government. Reader contributions are welcome, either as comments or posts. The word limit is no more than 450 words, and please focus on just one lesson you think the party needs to learn. Simply email your submission to [email protected] Today Richard Morris shares his thoughts.

Make the red lines deeper and wider

Do you remember the ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ sketch from The Life of Brian? ‘ ‘Nothing’ was the implied answer (except of course for The Aquaduct, sanitation, the roads, irrigation, medicine, education, public baths, public order….).

And despite all that – they wanted the Romans out.

I thought of this when the party published its list of Liberal Democrat achievements in government. Just like the Romans, we’ve delivered a robust set of improvements to everyone’s lives – a million more jobs, 2.7 million people out of income tax altogether, the Pupil Premium, Equal Marriage…

Yet, with our current polling on average still at 10%, most people seem reluctant to thank us. Indeed, quite the opposite.

That’s because most folk, when thinking about how to vote, don’t sit down and make an objective assessment of past performance, add in a thorough examination of manifesto promises, and vote accordingly. They vote with emotion, they vote by habit and they vote by gut instinct. They ask themselves, who do I trust, who seems reliable, who seems competent?

Whether we like it or not, we fail in many people’s eyes on this score. Yes, we’ve done lots of great things in government. But that’s not the prevailing narrative. It’s that we’re untrustworthy, that we betray our principles, that we were more interested in ministerial cars than political doctrine.

I’m not saying that’s right or fair. But that is where we are. And because we were seen as having principles when we went into government (in contrast to either Labour or the Conservatives), we are punished far more severely by the voters when we are seen as betraying those principles.

So in contrast to Nick Thornsby’s assertion (No.4 in this series) that we started the differentiation strategy too early, I would assert that we started it too late. That we had a coalition agreement, and we should have stuck firmly to it. That we should have vetoed any policy not in that document.

Checking back at the ‘Record of Delivery’ document, we’d still have been able to do most of it– the obvious exception being Equal Marriage (which makes the case for a more considered and slightly longer process putting the coalition agreement together next time, to avoid missing vital things like that out). And a lot of stuff that’s caused all the reputational problems for the party would have been non starters anyway – the original NHS White paper, Secret Courts…..

So my advice for next time: whichever party we end up in coalition with, take longer putting the agreement together, and make the red lines deeper and wider. We don’t just need to win people’s heads. We need to win their hearts too.

Previously Published:

Stephen Tall: Stronger policy development and campaigning on issues that matter to the public (AKA where’s our liberal equivalent of the benefits cap?)

Mark Valladares: Better party communications responding to the realities of governing

Gareth Epps: Government: What’s Occurrin?

Nick Thornsby: Making a success of coalition government as a concept

Caron Lindsay: That old “walk a mile in each others’ shoes” thing works

Louise Shaw: One member, one vote for all party elections

Mark Pack: The invisible ministers should up their game, or be sacked

Robin McGhee: We should organise ministers better

Rob Parsons: Understand the mechanics of government

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • jenny barnes 8th Aug '13 - 8:36am

    ” a robust set of improvements to everyone’s lives – a million more jobs”

    Would those be the million jobs on zero hours contracts? Or the ones on workfare or lose your benefits? And is “foodbank britain” really a robust improvement to EVERYONE’S lives????

    Thing is, what many voters (and, I may say, a number of LD members/activists) see is that the LDs in coalition have facilitated a set of Tory policies that even Thatcher might have thought twice about – and senior figures – yes, Alexander and Laws in particular – have gone on record in the media praising them.

  • The headline here applies to the run-up. BE PREPARED TO SAY NO! People will have more difficulty in blaming you if you show you have been prepared to talk, but cannot come to an agreement which takes into account what you have promised at an election, or as a long-standing commitment when it becomes obvious the other party or parties will not concede. These longstanding commitments are very often the very things which have motivated your supporters to come and vote for you. If you seem prepared to move too far from your normal established committed positions, is it any wonder that people say they don’t trust you any more? (which is what the polls have said, and what we are told on the doorstep. Clegg et al calculated that they would lose some that way, but there would be many who would step into the hole they left. So far, guys, it isn’t happening.

  • What Jenny said. That the million more jobs coincides with the same number being on workmate and no longer counted as unemployed because they are working for no wages at all – basically slaves – is not something I would be boasting about.

  • “And a lot of stuff that’s caused all the reputational problems for the party would have been non starters anyway”

    This also means being much more ruthless about one’s own pet policies: was it really necessary to include voting reform, lords reform and other hobby horses that didn’t have massive public support in the 2010 coalition agreement? Would it of been better to have adopted Tony Blair’s 1997 stance and taken these out leaving the agreement much more focused, thereby demonstrating that the country was in “safe hands”. But then Blair did have the confidence that he would win and win again (and even now thinks with him as leader, Labour could of won again in 2010)…

  • Jonathan Brown 8th Aug '13 - 8:04pm

    Yeah, I was one of those people protesting for electoral reform! While with hindsight we’d have been better off binning something that ultimately got nowhere for real gains in another policy area, it made sense to press for it at the time. It was one of our 4 ‘front of the manifesto’ issues.

    I think Richard makes a very good argument though for taking time over the coalition agreement (not that I think this would eliminate mistakes altogether or avoid the need for some making it up on the spot as we react to events) and treating anything not covered by it with much more suspicion. Not necessarily an automatic veto, but certainly something that needs to be considered by the party, and not just by the Quad.

  • Martin Caffrey 9th Aug '13 - 2:10am

    The only red lines I want to see any deeper and wider are the ones on Mr Clegg’ s and Mr Alexander’s backs when they are whipped out the door by the voters in 2015!

    Hmmm, sounds like a Mason ritual.

  • The only big issue Lib Dems won is now promoted as Tory “policy” – taking low earners out of tax altogether. At the right time this can be be brought to the fore. Maybe there will be others but I don’t hear about them yet as they are blanked by the popular media – where the votes will come from in large measure.

    How would the public react to our principle of dumping Trident? Depends where we are with economic recovery at the time of the general election. This and other principled items have to be judged correctly on a timely basis. That has to be the focus now – reasonable Lib Dem estimates of national consensus in 2015 based on the work of our best and trusted stateswomen and statesmen. If we don’t have these in important positions the election results could be dire.

  • Richard Morris makes some valid points in that we should have stuck firmly to the coalition agreement. However there were two areas in the agreement that would have caused us problems anyway – our change of position on the economy and our not honouring our pledges on tuition fees both of which were accepted by the emergency conference. With regard to both we might have been able to say we still held the same positions but had to give them up as the price of coalition but what we said was we had changed our minds (or 28 MPs did with regard to tuition fees). However I don’t agree that we should have vetoed “any policy not in that document” but we should only have supported policies not in the agreement if they were in our manifesto or we got a manifesto commitment enacted in exchange for it and we had not opposed it in our manifesto. I have not read any of the books about the creation of the coalition agreement so I am not sure if more time would have been beneficial.

    We would need to be up front about what we supported only as the price of coalition while making very clear what we got in exchange for such support. We wouldn’t then declare everything that the coalition does as being because of us being in government and it would be harder for the Conservatives to claim our policies as their achievements.

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