Lessons of Coalition (12): 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 Patrick Murray shares his thoughts.

Make sure our policies are reflected in our manifesto

One of the great challenges facing our society is the housing crisis. For many young people getting on the housing ladder is impossible. We have over 4.5 million people on waiting lists for affordable homes. Living in cramped or poorly maintained housing can have significant physical and mental health impacts. Unaffordable rents can leave people stuck in the benefits trap, or forced to live in areas where jobs are scarce.

The Coalition’s response has been to change fundamentally the nature of affordable housing. Rents in new affordable homes funded by government grants are expected to be 80% of the private market rent, meaning new social homes are unaffordable for many in areas of high demand. Capital spending slashed in the emergency budget of 2010 by over 60%. Of the recent £100 billion infrastructure package announced by the Coalition, only 3.3% was to be spent on the building of affordable housing.

Housing benefit now takes up 95% of the spend on affordable housing, and only 5% of the nation’s spend on affordable housing goes on the actual building of affordable homes! This is a crazy waste of public money, especially considering the economic impact of actually building homes.

The sad truth is it didn’t have to be this way. Over the previous decade, the Liberal Democrats came up with a suite of excellent policy proposals (see here, for example) that could have made a real difference to this national crisis. So what happened?

In short when it came to the finalisation of our manifesto, the housing section was stripped out, leaving only bringing back empty homes into use. Whilst this is important, the reality is that refurbishing empty homes, many in areas of low demand, simply cannot provide the answers that we need without a whole range of other interventions aimed at massively boosting the supply of homes in the right places.

This in turn led to a Coalition Agreement completely devoid of any further policy on housing. The result was that Conservative-inspired policies expanded to fill the gap. In short, we shied away from putting forwards liberal solutions to solve a crisis impacting on our society, and causing great misery for some of the most vulnerable.

Let’s not make the same mistake twice. The Liberal Democrats new policy, Affordable Homes for All, agreed at the 2012 September Conference, is a radical set of policies which can solve this crisis that has been brewing for generations.

Building the right mix of homes, in the right places, at the right affordability can help create a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life, by breaking down barriers faced by those in unsuitable housing.

So this time round, when we have the solution to such a major problem, let’s actually campaign on it and put it in our manifesto! Maybe then the Liberal Democrats can help deliver the good quality, affordable homes that millions of people desperately need.

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

Bill le Breton: The Open Coalition and Its Enemies

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Peter Davies 10th Aug '13 - 12:46pm

    How is that a lesson of coalition? Given the Tory position, This would have been a manifesto commitment we failed to deliver instead of just a policy.

  • I agree with Patrick Murray that housing was not prominent in our manifesto last time and so our policies on housing didn’t make it into the coalition agreement. There is a motion on strengthening the UK economy being discussed at conference and maybe someone will propose amending it so some of our policies in “Decent Homes for All” could be advocated while in government. I would like to see housing associations being given money via Quantitative Easing (this should be acceptable to the Conservatives because it does not affect the deficit) and the government developing policies to try to get house building to 300,000 per year.

    I see that “investing in Housing” is in the motion on the manifesto themes paper. Hopefully Federal Policy Committee will ensure it is in the final version of the manifesto and it is one of our core policies we wish to achieve.

  • patrick murray 10th Aug '13 - 4:28pm

    Thanks for taking the time to read it. My view is not that it was inevitable that we would end up with Tory policies, it happened because we didn’t put ours forwards effectively. So the lesson for a future coalition is that we need to be clear about putting policies forwards during the election so that negotiation can take place. I used housing as an example because it is close to my heart and I think it is the main one we failed really to tackle due to our own earlier decisions.

    I hope that it is recognised now as a critical area of policy to solve for the next few years so it does play a prominent role in our manifesto and in future government actions.

  • Jonathan Brown 11th Aug '13 - 1:19am

    Very good article. I suppose a related lesson we could learn is that we don’t need to be shy about publishing a longer manifesto. As long as we can put a short list of priorities on the front, it really doesn’t matter how long the rest of the document is – I doubt even most journalists, let along the public, read it. But if conference has developed policy on an area – no matter how obscure – then I can’t think of a reason it shouldn’t go into the manifesto, even if it gets forgotten about on the campaign trail, if only to ensure that when it comes to coalition negotiations, and ongoing negotiations once in a coalition, that we have a starting point to negotiate from rather than nothing.

  • Great article. Agree with Jonathan Brown. We campaign on a few core issues … but our manifesto provides a panoply of policy directions that we can draw upon in the event that we do form part of a new government (the paucity of policy in certain areas was highlighted as a concern by one of the earlier contributors to lessons learnt).

    It is crazy that 95% of housing benefit goes to subsidizing rent. In economic terms this increases demand, inflating rents, and represents a transfer of income from taxpayers to rental property owners … thihas a negative wealth and income impact.

  • Thursdays main Council by election results must be the most appalling yet. The party almost ceases to exist in may constituencies and the number of lost deposits at the general election will probably break all records for the party.
    We are not far short of a full potential disaster with MPs falling by the score.
    Yet we stumble along as if nothing is wrong and it will all be w ell on the night. Quite simply it will not unless we do something radical to change the situation.
    Someone needs to get a grip and put their feet on the ground , not up in the clouds.

  • Michael Parsons 11th Aug '13 - 11:06am

    Why still talking about “Coalition” when we mean the future National Liberal and Conservative Party?

  • Dominic Curran 12th Aug '13 - 1:39pm

    An excellent article by patrick. His point well illustrates the maxim that decisions are made by those that turn up, or rather, policies are included when they were there to be included in the first place.

    If our aim to be the party of opportunity and social mobility is to be realised, then not having somwhere decent and affordable to live for a huge number of people under 35 has to be one of the first areas to start tackling.

    Successive LD manifesto policies on housing in the last decade have reflected a general lack of focus in the policy area and our rural and regional bias – policies on community land trusts, golden shares and empty homes, whilst reasonable enough in themselves, gave the impression of a party completely unaware of the brewing housing crisis in southern england, as well as many localised urban areas in the rest of the UK. This has to change in 2015.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Aug '13 - 4:59pm

    Dominic Curran

    If our aim to be the party of opportunity and social mobility is to be realised, then not having somwhere decent and affordable to live for a huge number of people under 35 has to be one of the first areas to start tackling.
    The problem is the slightest start to policies which might seriously tackle this issue brings forth howls of anger from those adversely affected by them, but silence from those who would benefit. Consider what happened when we dipped our toe into the water by proposing the most timid property/land tax we could think of, the so-called “mansion tax”. If that is howled down and called anti-southern, what will happen with tax policies which really push a redistributionist idea when it comes to land and property? From the way the “mansion tax” was received, one might suppose most of the south-east was people living in million pound plus properties. One would hardly even be aware of the fact that it’s young people in the south-east who would benefit most from t his sort of tax, because they suffer most from being unable to afford property in their home area, so would benefit the most from prices being brought down by tax policies that discourage ownership for investment against ownership for need.

  • Dominic Curran 13th Aug '13 - 9:57am


    All good and fair points, and ones illustrated by Evan Davies questioning of BrandonLewis this morning about Help to Buy.

    However, one policy that would unite north and south is that of building more council/social housing, which would create jobs & economic growth, generate savings for the taxpayer in HB, help insulate the economy against house price bubbles, generate socially positive outcomes and create a long term asset for the country.

    If only there was a party proposing such a thing…

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Aug '13 - 11:26am

    Dominic Curran

    However, one policy that would unite north and south is that of building more council/social housing


    Oh this sounds very nice in theory, but in practice as soon as you build anywhere there are howls of anguish from the people living there saying “Not in my back yard – how dare you spoil our green land and our views in this way?”.

  • Michael Parsons 13th Aug '13 - 11:35am

    Surely if you intend to form a coalition you should give voters a choice to vote for by outlining coalition policies? Time to open discussion with potential partners now, then. Failing that at least indicate what you would drop if you link to this or that other Party. Or are electors supposed to buy a (Parliamentary) pig in a poke again and pretend this is “democratic choice” as now?

  • Difficult, Michael, to take your option – how can a voter vote specifically for a Coalition. We would have to have a very sophisticated and complicated system to enable that to happen. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that exists anywhere in the world. And if you mean what I think you mean, ie that parties negotiate with one another beforehand, then can say roughly what might happen on certain outcomes, it will either confuse more people, encouraging them not to vote, or they would tend to vote Tory or Labour as the perceived strongest parties, as that would give the best chance of avoiding a coalition. Otherwise, you go into an election as potential coalition partners, which is a difficult and dangerous position for Lib Dems to be in, probably leading to the party’s demise.

  • Dominic Curran 15th Aug '13 - 1:36pm


    Where to build new housing? A fair question, and you’re right about NIMBYs. I think we need a combination of New Towns and a more robust planning policy approach (which has started with the NPPF and is being enforced by PINS, happily) which says to communities ‘you need to make provision for objectively asessed need, and if you don’t your local plans will be found unsound’. Power needs to be taken away from NIMBYs as they are not the right people to decide on the level of new housing required in an area. If they decide to engage with the process by directing where new housing should go, then great. But they should not be allowed to frustrate the process.

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