Lessons of Coalition (16): More shocks than lessons

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 Paul Walter shares his thoughts.

These are less lessons and more shocks.

1. The robustness of the remaining Lib Dem members

I am quite shocked, or pleasantly surprised, by the robust support given to the coalition government by Lib Dem members, including myself. We’ve stuck with it and withstood umpteen body blows while still supporting our leader Nick Clegg. Given our background as the “awkward squad”, who argue about anything and everything, this is extraordinary and very refreshing.

2. One doesn’t have to agree with everything the coalition government does, to support it generally

The mistake that I made at first was that it was “all or nothing” with the coalition government. – That one had to support everything the government does, or not support it at all. In fact, it’s obvious, as I now realise, that no human being can agree with everything the government does and it is impossible to defend every government act. However, it is reasonable to have a cut-off somewhat below total agreement with every coalition act, which resembles reasonable support.

3. Radical things done in the early days of a government can be overlooked

In 1997 it was independence for the Bank of England with the incoming Labour government. For this government it was the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011. Really, radical, ‘generational-shift’ pieces of legislation, enacted early in government honeymoons. Everyone forgets about them. And everyone takes them for granted and doesn’t realise how radical and welcome they are. Look to the early 1990s and you’ll see news bulletins repeatedly talking about political motivated shenanighans over the interest rate and when the next election will be held. We don’t have that now. Thank goodness. Not only have those changes led to a more stable political environment, but they have also led to a less economically volatile situation in the UK.

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

David Allen: If It Won’t Work, Walk

Joe Otten: Government is hard

Richard Flowers: The Economy (it’s too soon to say)

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Several things I would take issue with here, but just one for the moment – Fixed Term Parliaments – which are, I think, a good idea, and had been de facto party policy for a while, anyway. However, I think the concession to the Tories (as written at the time) of 5 years rather than 4 rather wrecked the whole thing. OK Euros are on a 5 year cycle, but every other British set of elections are 4 years, and it would have seemed to be sensible to work to an all encompassing cycle than perpetually changing tensions according to which election coincides with which.

  • “One doesn’t have to agree with everything the coalition government does, to support it generally”

    No, but don’t make the opposite mistake – that you can support the government generally without retaining some responsibility for those actions that you disagree with.

    In effect, by identifying yourself as a supporter, you are saying that spending cuts, benefit freezes, secret courts, NHS ‘reforms’ and so on are “a price worth paying” for the things you agree with.

  • I certainly read that our LD original position was 4 years, and that it was the Tories who pushed for 5. I don’t think that anywhere in the legislation was there any reference to “how long the economy would take to put right” etc. It would have been invidious to choose a set of elections to “clash” with, so I would have chosen to do exactly as they did with 5 years, ie, start the new 4 year fixed cycle at 2010. Whatever you choose there’s an issue! You would only have had two options, 2010 / 14 etc or 2011 / 15, anyway, because you would be very heavily criticised if the first cycle were 6 years or more.

  • “I am quite shocked, or pleasantly surprised, by the robust support given to the coalition government by Lib Dem members……..”. I think it is fair and relevant of me to point out – in view of the sentiment quoted above – that support for the coalition amongst LIbDem members is not as strong as is inferred. First and foremost, 35% of the LibDerm membership of 2010 had left the Party by 2012 (according to the Electoral Reform Society), that is a loss of 22500 members, we can be pretty sure the Coalition was a major factor in such a large loss of members. I would be surpised if there is a large majority of the remaining members (42000) who are enthusiatic about the Coalition. It seems to me that antipathy towards the Coalition is growing amongst members of both the Conservative and LibDem Parties.

  • “Or we could have refused to play ball and suffered a minority Tory government, in which case you are saying that spending cuts, benefit freezes, secret courts, NHS ‘reforms’ and so on are “a price worth paying” for our moral purity.”

    Not at all.

  • @Joe Otten: “a 6 year parliament would have been unconstitutional (I hope)”

    While I don’t like long parliaments (I’d prefer 3-year cycles, at most) I’m not sure why they would be “unconstitutional.” For195 years (from 1716-1911) the maximum length of a parliament was 7 years. Even after the act was amended to shorten terms to 5 years, the Parliament elected in 1910 sat until 1918 and the Parliament elected in 1935 sat until 1945.

    It should be noted that the only point of the People’s Charter that remains unfulfilled is that requiring the *annual* election of parliaments.

  • nuclear cockroach 19th Aug '13 - 5:19pm

    @Joe Otten

    That is how I see it. The Monarch today is the ultimate guardian of the constitution. A public fight between Monarch and Government would lead to one of two things: the popular institution of a republic, or the impeachment of the Prime Minister.

  • @Joe Otten: In 1641, King Charles I gave his assent to a bill (17 Car. I. cap. 7) “that this present Parliament now assembled shall not be dissolved unless it be by Act of Parliament to be passed for that purpose” — giving Parliament a blank check to put off its dissolution indefinitely, something he would later have great cause to regret. Although in the troubles that followed, Parliament was repeatedly prevented from sitting, it did not allow its own dissolution until 1660, nearly 20 years after it had first been called.

    In 1716, the Whigs, who had won the election of 1715 (the first called after the death of Queen Anne and the accession of King George I) unilaterally extended the term of their government — up to then governed under the Triennial Act of 1694 — to seven years by the Septennial Act. This more than doubled Parliament’s term, put an end to the fluid political situation that had existed since the Revolution of 1688, and entrenched in power a Whig oligarchy for not quite half a century.

    So obviously manipulation of the political scene by changing the electoral schedule can be done and has been done; and there are certainly parties, hopefully very far from power (but who can tell?) who would not hesitate to use governmental power to keep themselves in power indefinitely. Whether the present monarch or any future monarch or head of state would be as pliable as a Charles or a George may be questioned, but I know of no very good reasons to reply to that question in the negative.

  • “David, I would hope that an incoming government deciding it had just been elected for 50 years would have its bill making that change refused royal assent by the Queen on constitutional grounds. That refusal is, more or less, what we are paying her for.”

    I think you’ll find the House of Lords has the power to veto such a bill.

  • nuclear cockroach 19th Aug '13 - 6:41pm


    That’s true, but these days the Lords is stuffed with political cronies, who might possibly do whatever was in the party interest rather than the national interest. Worse still, new Peers are appointed by the Prime Minister of the day. Nothing is to stop the PM stuffing the Lords with a thousand new Peers with the express purpose of prolonging a Parliament beyond its natural day. There is no written constitution and a judge will not find it easy to prevent a government from abusing an unwritten constitution. The backstop is the Monarch.

  • A Social Liberal 19th Aug '13 - 11:35pm

    Richard Flowers said

    “Or we could have refused to play ball and suffered a minority Tory government, in which case you are saying that spending cuts, benefit freezes, secret courts, NHS ‘reforms’ and so on are “a price worth paying” for our moral purity.”

    1) you assume that a minority Tory government would have attempted (and more than that, succeeded) to get those policies through. Given that they would have been a minority government, just how would they have achieved this?

    2) This has nothing to do with moral purity, it is everything to do with having principles and not selling them out. Before the last election we held the moral high ground, in advancing to government we gave up some valuble real estate.

  • A Social Liberal,

    You are in agreement with Norman Tebbit, and you are both right. Objectively, Lib Dem support for the Coalition has indeed enabled the Tories to move faster and further with their radical right-wing reforms than a minority Conservative government would have been able to do.

    We could defend that outcome, but only if we decided to defend the Coalition’s record, propose its renewal in 2015, and declare that we are now a centre-right party. We would then be putting forward a coherent platform, which the voters would understand. Some would support us, others would not.

    Alternatively, we could decide that we cannot defend that outcome. If so, we would have to apologise for some of the things that have happened. We would have to declare that we will not renew Coalition with the Conservatives on the current basis. (We could either exclude it outright, or else impose truly tough conditions, for example, that the Lib Dems would have to provide either the PM or the Chancellor). We would declare that we are now a centre-left party. We could then put forward a coherent platform, which the voters would understand. Some would support us, others would not.

    The third alternative is to carry on as we are doing, and try to muddle along down the middle. We would then be putting forward an incoherent platform, which the voters would treat with disdain. Very few would support us.

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