Lessons of Coalition (11): 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 Bill le Breton shares his thoughts.

The Open Coalition and Its Enemies

The most noticeable characteristic of the present Coalition Government is how similar it is in process to the single party governments that preceded it. Rather than becoming more open, government in this Liberal Democrat-influenced Coalition has become more opaque.

An open society needs an open government. The claustrophobia evident in the main messages coming from the leadership of the Coalition is a symptom of the fear of change that comes with a liberal world view. ‘Manipulation’ rather than ‘participation’ are the watchwords. Trust in the People there isn’t.

If you doubt this, then, consider what recent issues such as the ‘Go Home!’ poster vans and the ‘Racial Profiling’ spot checks tell us, not just about the policies of this Government, but also about the way it is arriving at decisions. Those decisions come from the dark crevices in which a paranoid elite operate, exploit and manipulate.

The very idea of coalition government in 2010 must have set alarm bells ringing throughout Whitehall, as they have rung in the Chief Executives’ offices of many a council over the last 40 years. Normally, Liberal Democrats are thrilled to hear these bells. They signal the end of an old discredited order; sunlight issuing into the corridors of power.

Within the Liberal Democrat Leadership in 2010 there was more fear than thrill. Trust in the Party (including elements within the Parliamentary Party) there was not.

Strong leadership comes from the coagulation, monopolization and exploitation of power. Its antithesis is not weak leadership. The opposite of strong leadership is involvement, devolution, trust: the organisation of a movement for people to take and use their power.

This Liberal approach to leadership with its instinctive urge to win hearts and minds, rather than to exclude and oppress can actually be assisted by the necessity of operating a coalition. When evolving policy and later, when negotiating with a coalition partner, the ability to point to democratic support is ‘powerful’. It is the ability to appeal to another and greater coalition; the coalition of the people.

This is why campaigning is at the very centre of Liberalism. Campaigning is the process of inspiring others to join that movement for change; be it a change in approach to the environment, or to the way education is accessed, or to the definition of justice.

For these advantages of multi-party government to be taken by Liberals, the mechanics of governance – the way decisions are taken in Government – and the mechanics of Party decision-taking must be opened up: made transparent and involving. They must be susceptible to campaigning.

The lack of campaigning in the Party, or its feeble expression as the endorsement of Coalition policy, is the manifestation of a Closed Coalition, just as an old-fashioned office with corridors and waiting rooms and executive lavatories is evidence of a hierarchical and closed culture.

There are plenty of political options for those whose fear of change and of liberalism drive them to yearn for a closed ‘drawbridge up’ society. It is a tragedy that our chance to let in the sunlight is being wasted. The PM and the Cabinet Secretary rest easy in their beds: Government remains ‘Closed to the Public’.

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

Richard Morris: Make the red lines deeper and wider

Read more by or more about or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • paul barker 9th Aug '13 - 12:49pm

    Im sorry but this description of the way Our Party has worked in Government is so distorted it verges on self-parody. Where is the evidence that Our Leaders dont trust us?

  • David Allen 9th Aug '13 - 5:13pm

    I’m not sure I buy the idea that distrust between Party leaders, MPs and activists is unique to this Coalition. John Major and his b*stards in Parliament didn’t show a great deal of mutual trust, nor did Blair and Old Labour.

    Where we are perhaps unique is in our polarisation. Half of our voters and activists have walked away in disgust since 2010. Many of those who remain seem to have been goaded into a fierce, reactively militant loyalism – a determination to stand shoulder to shoulder with the leadership, right or wrong. That’s no way to encourage a more open, responsive style of government.

  • David Pollard 9th Aug '13 - 7:52pm

    I agree on the too secret aspect of this post. Also, LibDem ministers have found it difficult to leave behind the unintelligible ‘minister speak’ when being interviewed. They ought to practice answering the question. The world will not end if they make the occasional mistake and they should be able to get their points over better! Unless of course they don’t really believe themselves what they have been told to say.
    Where openess has broken out, is in the Select Committee system, where balanced committees and (sort of) impartial chairmen are really paying dividends.

  • ” this description of the way Our Party has worked in Government is so distorted it verges on self-parody.”

    Isn’t the way the leaders have treated he members beyond parody?

  • Graham Evans 9th Aug '13 - 9:11pm

    It is surely noticeable that Secretaries of State have very wide discretion to act without the need for parliamentary approval. This means that LD junior ministers (up to Minster of State level) find themselves associated with actions with which they may not necessarily agree, particularly when the Secretary of State is a highly political Tory. I think there is something to be said for the German system in which the junior partner in the coalition has complete responsibility for specific ministries, the senior coalition partner running the other ministries. This way both parties can to some extent distance themselves from decisions taken by their coalition partners, while negotiating an agreement on those issues which do need parliamentary approval.

  • Let us see how things go in Glasgow. As someone who joined the party in April 2010, I have experienced a number of disappointments on policy and been a little distressed on some of the manipulations in conference, the debates on the health system/NHS being foremost. I have always been told that our party has greater internal democracy … I still believe this is so, my problem is that I can not prove it as I have not been a member of any other party. What has amazed me is the ability to step easily into positions of service and influence in the party.

    Yes, it does distress me that we have a lot of “minister” speak. I still think that Vince Cable is more resistant to this than most. I can not see another party I would rather be a member of right now.

    On select committees, my personal favourite is Margaret Hodge (Labour) in Public Accounts. I think she is superb. I have to confess that I would probably vote for her if I happened to live in Barking! – which I don’t, so not an issue.

  • David Evans 10th Aug '13 - 5:54pm

    @Paul Barker

    Your loyalty does you proud, but sadly I think it blinds you to the truth. When you say “I’m sorry but this description of the way Our Party has worked in Government is so distorted it verges on self-parody. Where is the evidence that Our Leaders don’t trust us?” is a parody in itself.
    Passages from Nick’s speech to the Lib Dem Local Government Conference in Manchester this year, including

    “Hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition”

    “Imagine yourself on the doorstep – two different conversations.

    The first:
    Hello, I’m from the Liberal Democrats, for which I am truly sorry…
    No, I’d rather not talk about the things we’ve done in national government if you don’t mind…”
    Around here we’ve been terribly nice, would it be possible to just stick to that?

    The second:
    I’m from the Liberal Democrat Party.
    When the country needed it, we stepped up to our responsibilities…”

    Shows how little he trusts Lib Dems, or posibly even more, shows how much he fears that the Lib Dems, like the rest of the country no longer trust him.

  • “Shows how little he trusts Lib Dems, or posibly even more, shows how much he fears that the Lib Dems, like the rest of the country no longer trust him.”

    No longer trust him?! Speak for yourself. Never trusted him a bit but then the other choice was worse, wasn’t he?

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