Lessons of Coalition (13): 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 David Allen shares his thoughts.

If It Won’t Work, Walk

In 1974, Ted Heath called on Jeremy Thorpe to join the Conservatives in a historic ‘anti-socialist’ coalition. Thorpe spent a weekend in negotiation, then declared that it could not work. The differences in philosophy and programme were simply too great to bridge. Thorpe had sacrificed the career opportunity of a lifetime on a question of principle. Others, of course, have done things differently.

Ken Clarke spoke on the 2010 election night about the risk of chaos in the bond markets the next morning. It was outrageous bounce tactics. No Liberal Democrat pointed that out. Instead, our own leadership itself used false parallels with Greece to justify a rushed deal. The bond markets stayed calm.

When nothing was signed immediately, Tories queued up to castigate the indecisive Lib Dems. No Lib Dem spokesperson pointed out that, in the rest of Europe, it is well understood that coalitions usually take at least a month to agree, and are all the better for that.

After five days, a detailed agreement was hurried out. It said amongst other things that the Coalition would stop top-down reorganisation of the NHS. Our party did not formally monitor government adherence to the agreement. It was, of course, ignored or twisted out of all recognition whenever it suited the Tories. Finally, Clegg broke the agreement over parliamentary boundaries. The Tories cried foul, rightly pointing out that Clegg had misrepresented the agreed trade-off in that particular area. They pointed out the mote in the Lib Dem eye. Both parties had ignored the beam in the Conservative eye.

Successive Lib Dem leaders had pledged that if ever coalition could be achieved, securing Lib Dem policies would be the priority. Jobs for our boys would not. Then Osborne offered, as he put it, to “pay the top price for the Turkish carpet”. On policies? You judge.

The Coalition has achieved little for Britain, apart from the private firms which have gained business in health and education. Our support has halved. Our youth vote has vanished.

We obsessed about our own weakness, the terrible risk that if we didn’t make a deal, we might have to fight another election and again come third. We ignored Cameron’s weakness, the risk that if he had called another election, he might not have again come first, thus ending his career. We didn’t plan, and we didn’t hold our nerve.

Not that Clegg is the least bit interested but, just for completeness, let’s add a footnote – Labour could also be very hard to deal with. If we meant it about equidistance, we would start some discussions with them now. Any chance?

If it isn’t going to work, you have to walk away.

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

Patrick Murray: Make sure our policies are reflected in our manifesto

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I thought your last comment on the article about potholes was brilliant and ought to be used as the starting point for discussions about how we rebuild our radical ideological appeal. However, what you say here starts off with a re-writing of history a la Andrew Adonis. Just as in 2010 the party in Feb 74 that had gone into the election as the government had clearly lost the election, but in neither case had the opposition obviously won. Heath tried to do a deal with Thorpe but the Liberal Party in the country said “No way!” Thorpe was being a realist, not an idealist. Wilson didn’t offer us a deal in February 74, but we still ended up bailing the Labour Government out later in the following parliament but with nothing to show for our support.

  • Nich Starling 11th Aug '13 - 10:58pm

    Well said. I seemed to be alone, and got much abuse, for daring to highlight back in 2010 (and my blog is still “live” so my comments from back then can still be read) that coalition with the Tories was hypocritical, counter to what we had campaigned on, rushed, and worse, seemed self serving.

    We took ministries we were arguing just days earlier should be abolished, took other “jobs” which involved Lib Dems implementing policy that was totally at odds with party policy (like tuition fees) whilst leaving whole policy areas where Lib Dem policy was sensible, thought out and popular (health and education) for the Tories to befoul with doctrinaire rubbish based on political whim as opposed to evidence.

    But hey, whilst our local parties are falling apart on the ground (and I know many that barely exist at constituency level due to all their councillor being wiped out and the few activists they have leaving because of their disappointment with Clegg, those in the Westminster bubble continue to delude themselves that everything will be okay. On the ground, the party is back to pre 1992 levels of organisation in much of the country, and it will take a generation to rebuild structures, and as long to win back the trust of the public.

  • Thanks Tony. Perhaps I was a little over-generous to Thorpe. Here is a fairly impartial account:


    …which mainly shows, I suppose, that the past is a foreign country. Could we imagine Clegg calling ,as apparently Thorpe did, for a three-party national government?

  • According to an ex-Liberal in my Local Party in 1974 local chairs were consulted and the advice received back to the National party was not to go into government with the Conservatives. As Tony Hill says the situation was different in 1974 than in 2010 because in 1974 the Conservatives were in government and lost and in 2010 Labour were in government and lost. Also the party was prepared to go into coalition in 2010 but David Allen’s lessons seems to be that we should have known in May 2010 that a coalition with the Conservatives couldn’t work. I do not believe that this could be forecast at the time. I believed that Conservative MPs were more likely than Labour MPs to vote for things they didn’t like that were agreed as coalition policy making a Conservative deal the preferred option to achieve Liberal Democrat policies.

    The AV referendum was a mistake and maybe it could have been predicted at the time. It seemed to me that we only accepted this because Gordon Brown was offering it and so David Cameron matched it. We should have either have gone for STV or nothing. Boundary review would have had to have been different and more detail should have been included in House of Lords reform.

    Tuition fees was always going to be a difficult area. What was in the coalition agreement was always going to be difficult for us, but Vince Cable convincing 27 more of our MPs to vote to for the reforms was a mistake, but the party at large could not know in May 2010 that these MPs were going to bring the party into disrepute.

    “(O)ur party did not formally monitor government adherence to the agreement.” It is true that we did not ensure that the agreement was followed but let the Conservatives do things not in the agreement. I do not believe this is a failure on the part of the Conservatives, because I believe they made new proposals and Nick and Danny instead of vetoing them; accepted them and the reform of the NHS is one example of this.

    Another point David Allen seems to be making is that we didn’t negotiate a good deal because we feared a new general election. I do not believe this, but do accept that we made mistakes in the coalition agreement but then we had already made mistakes in our manifesto. Without being there it is difficult to know how more of our policies we could have got into the agreement. However the biggest mistake Nick, Danny and others made was to state we had changed our position on deficit reduction. This does not mean that we didn’t have to accept most of the Conservative’s position on deficit reduction it just means we should not have changed our thinking and we should have made it clear it was the price of a stable government.

  • Tony Dawson 12th Aug '13 - 8:25am

    Excellent analysis.

    The phrase ‘mess of potage’ comes to mind.

    Don’t most lemmings think they are heading in the right direction as they plunge over the cliff? 🙁

  • Simon McGrath 12th Aug '13 - 8:51am

    “. No Lib Dem spokesperson pointed out that, in the rest of Europe, it is well understood that coalitions usually take at least a month to agree, and are all the better for that.”

    There is of course no argument that is more effective with the British public than that something works OK in other countries …..

  • Agree with your irony, Simon. It’s just a shame that people often don’t look
    at things that can be learned from what is done in other places and countries. This speaks
    of a very conservative and parochial mindset. Another thing we fight through our Lib Dem values.

  • David Allen 12th Aug '13 - 1:48pm

    Amalric, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    You say “David Allen’s lessons seems to be that we should have known in May 2010 that a coalition with the Conservatives couldn’t work. I do not believe that this could be forecast at the time.”

    Well – Nich Starling certainly did, to his credit, but I confess I was one of the majority who didn’t – despite an intense distrust of Clegg (a topic on which my foresight was rather better!) In hindsight, I correctly saw through Clegg, but got conned by Cameron. I put undue faith in the manufactured image, hug-a-hoodie, hug-a-husky. Cameron was obviously in a weak position, and I figured he would settle for a kind of Harold Macmillan – type premiership, pro-business but with a one-nation leavening, content with a deal which would see him supplant Brown, and concentrating – as he promised – on financial rectitude and rescuing the economy.

    I could not have been much more wrong about that. The Cameron image was not just sugar-coated, it was deliberately deceptive. The Conservatives determined to use their five years to achieve fundamental change and the destruction of state health, education and welfare as we know them. Instead of being scared by their low percentage vote, they were emboldened by it. They realised that if they didn’t take the opportunity to reshape the game, they might never again win it. As for the deficit, they weren’t interested in financial rectitude. (“Help to Buy” shows that!) No, they were interested in the deficit as a bogeyman, a scare story to tell, the better to help force through right-wing radical change.

    I think the reason that this “couldn’t be forecast” at the time by so many is, simply, that we didn’t have the information. Our own leaders knew what the Coalition Agreement really meant. They didn’t properly convey it to the rest of us. The fact that they are all still there is, quite simply, an affront to our voters in 2010 and an affront to what we stood for.

  • The Tories were very lucky that the right wing clique had come to power in the Lib Dems – I doubt if such a coalition deal could have been negotiated with any other recent Liberal or Lib Dem leadership.

  • @ David Allen

    “The Conservatives determined to use their five years to achieve fundamental change and the destruction of state health, education and welfare as we know them.”

    The coalition agreement with regard to education has lots of our policies there but the first one, “We will promote the reform of schools in order to ensure that new providers can enter the state school system in response to parental demand;” allowed the Conservative reforms. With regard to welfare we didn’t have anything in our manifesto so we agreed to the Conservative policy of “We will reform the funding mechanism used by government to finance welfare to work”, which led to Universal Credit. So it was only NHS reform that of the three that the Conservatives stepped outside the coalition agreement.

  • David Allen 14th Aug '13 - 4:04pm

    Amalric, yes, to my surprise you’re right. That’s why I only quoted the NHS case in my piece. Although free schools were hardly mentioned in the election campaign, the Coalition Agreement actually makes a pretty clear statement that we would go for them.

    I don’t think many people realised that at the time the Coalition Agreement was discussed! Or if they did, they didn’t see it as a big thing. The bit about “response to parental demand” might seem to imply that you’d need to prove majority support from your community, making free schools likely to be few in number.

    All adds to the lesson about not rushing into an agreement without knowing what you’re signing up to.

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