Lessons of Coalition (2): 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 Mark Valladares shares his thoughts …

Better party communications responding to the realities of governing

My lesson of coalition is the importance of building a Party communication system that can respond effectively to the external factors of government.

On policy, a strategy of forming policy working groups does not easily allow a Party response to emerging issues, be they driven by the media, by your Coalition partner or by unexpected world events. As a result, in the vacuum created, our Ministers are too often obliged to think on their feet or allowed to ‘freelance’. Most of the major clashes between the Party in government and the Party at large have stemmed from such events, and whilst improved communication allows Ministers and senior Party figures to explain afterwards, unless they are perceived to have got it right first time, disillusionment amongst a dwindling activist and member base is certain. We need policy documents that express fundamental principles and goals whilst leaving the small print for background material – the how and the when, if you like.

We need to continue to find new ways of informing our members and, even more importantly, inviting ongoing participation from members and activists. There is an astonishing amount of knowledge, experience and expertise out there, and we will be stronger for tapping it – it will give our Ministers and spokespeople a clear, early steer on what we are thinking as a tribe. We do need to express our fundamental principles more clearly. We are Liberal Democrats, not Centre Democrats or Equidistant Democrats, and we are at our best when we espouse liberal values. At a time when the public are yearning for someone who speaks to them and for them, there is space in British politics for someone who believes in things, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so.

* Mark Valladares blogs at The View from Creeting St Peter.

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?)

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Tony Dawson 31st Jul '13 - 8:28am

    Perhaps the Lib Dems nationally need to learn rather more from those who have managed to make gains despite the Coalition rather than from those who have been busy propagating the “yes, we keep losing but it’s entirely due to the coalition, hence inevitable…….we only lost because the electorate don’t understand….” line?

  • Mark, yes. One thing that boggles me is the number of times an MP/minister will comment without even trying to find out relevant policy though. We have expert groups in the party, most of which have someone available to contact at all times. How hard would it be to email (for example) LGBT+ lib dems before putting your foot in it on trans issues or BME lib dems on race? Also the various expert groups could talk to each other a lot more in my experience.

  • A Social Liberal 31st Jul '13 - 12:50pm

    What have we learned – I doubt if our present leaders have learned much.

    What we should have learned is, never EVER go into coalition with the Nasty Party

  • Defenestrate Clegg 31st Jul '13 - 3:31pm

    Nice try Andrew Hickey.

    But unfortunately poll after poll shows the voters now see the Lib Dems as the nasty party.
    Look at the poll link that shows how many people feel more negatives about the Lib Dems in the last 12 months, and how few feel more positive.


    An alcoholic must first understand and accept how far they’ve sunk, and the reason why, before they can help themselves.

    If you try and manufacture reasons why you are doing so badly, rather than listening to what people think, then what hope is there for the party ?

    If Clegg, as has been written about on some liberal blogs, is really going to be pushing for fighting the next election on a Coalition ticket….well the rest of us will just stand by and laugh.

    What’s apparent is that many of the problems in our politics at the moment is because we are missing the force of strong Lib Dem opposition on so many policies you would have been outraged about in the past.

    It’s just so very sad really. But the people who are suffering are not the Lib Dem leadership or their supporters.

  • @Andrew Hickey: “Unfortunately the Nasty Party got 65.1% of the vote last time between the two names it stood under”
    Then they didn’t really need Lib Dem votes, did they?

  • Defenestrate Clegg 31st Jul '13 - 6:04pm

    I think the public would have been much more accepting, and Lib Dem fortunes not so dire now if you’d let the Tories got it alone in a minority government, but can see the thrilling idea of being in government after so many years was just too heady to think straight.

    Under a Tory minority government the horse trading that’s gone on, what Clegg tries to sell as ‘grown up’ but the voters see as dishonest, wouldn’t have been quite so obvious.

    A lot of people interviewed after the election said they wanted some stability, a government that was not extreme and hoped the Lib Dems would help that. Instead we’ve had radical, often unmandated re-organisations compounded by incompetence and casual disregard for the people affected.

  • John Whitney 1st Aug '13 - 8:00am

    What have we learnt? Not much!
    We need to return to our core values and social democracy.

    New Leadership!

  • Bravo, this piece states in more detail what I was writing yesterday – make sure-footed policies WITHIN THE PARTY and stick to them. When in coalition you hold your position as the other party will too – and your movement towards agreement must be seen and understood by the electorate. That is open government. And we are Liberal Democrats – your additional explanation of “not Centre Democrats or Equidistant Democrats” is spot on as I’m sure it’s NOT honourable when in government to CHANGE to some perceived political position which has not been explained to the electorate before they elected you.

  • andrew purches 1st Aug '13 - 9:47am

    I have made the following point before as a general observation: this time I will be more specific. The Parliamentary section of our Party is no longer representative of the majority of the membership, nor is it recognised as such by the electorate at large. It has in fact reverted to the old National Liberal and Conservative Party axis, that died a lingering death over a period of three decades from the thirties into the sixties. Sir Anthony Fell was its last representative in the House,as M.P for Great Yarmouth. We will have to go back to grass roots,re-energise our local support, and perhaps seek to remove the whip from all those parliamentary members who have betrayed us. As a democratic (?) organ this is something that could be done at conference. And perhaps change our branding: “Lib Dem” is now such a description of failure in most people’s eyes.

  • In a coalition with Labour it would often be the LibDems saying ‘No, we cant afford that’ thus appearing to be tory skinflints – this country needs a majority liberal government – but how?
    (whoops, that’s a bit Westminster-centric, local government and euro government and UN are far more important than the space given them in the papers, on TV, and even in LibDem publications)

  • I am not convinced that having policy documents with no policy is the answer. However including the principles behind our policy in policy documents might be helpful, but the leadership should understand what our principles are. If we are electing MP’s who don’t understand our principles then the Candidate selection Policy is at fault, particularly the approval part. Can we change the approval process so that the only candidates that are approved believe and understand our principles and well as our policies?

    @ Peter Tyzack

    E-mail communication could be so much better. When our ministers are thinking about taking a position, rather than doing so and then Ministers and senior Party figures explaining afterwards, they could email the membership and ask for views to discover how such a policy position would play in the party. These ministers and senior party figures would need to ensure they read the responses and that the emails sent out by the party have an e-mail address to reply to. The leadership could also ask for views from English regional executives and the Scottish and Welsh party executives before making a new policy decision.

    @ Defenestrate Clegg

    “What’s apparent is that many of the problems in our politics at the moment is because we are missing the force of strong Lib Dem opposition on so many policies you would have been outraged about in the past.”

    The issue is really that in the past we would have opposed and been outraged by many of the policies the leadership as agreed to. The problem is that the leadership should not have accepted these policies and they should have vetoed much more that wasn’t in the coalition agreement.

    @ Andrew Purches

    “and perhaps seek to remove the whip from all those parliamentary members who have betrayed us. As a democratic (?) organ this is something that could be done at conference.”

    The removal of the whip from the parliamentary party can only be done by the parliamentary party and not federal conference. Conference does not have the power to revoke someone’s membership of the party, but the English, Scottish and Welsh parties do. I would like to see the 28 MP’s who voted in favour of tuition reform have their membership revoked for bringing the party into disrepute over this issue. Perhaps someone would like to send the state parties a written complaint.

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