Lessons of Coalition (4): 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 Nick Thornsby shares his thoughts …

Making a success of coalition government as a concept

Making a success of this coalition government meant two things for the Liberal Democrats. It first meant proving to a sceptical public unused to pluralism that coalition government as a concept is a good, worthwhile thing. Secondly, we had to survive, and hopefully prosper, as a political party.

While separate, those two aims were always intimately linked.

In the early stages of government we were extremely successful with the first. We confounded the critics who said coalition would be a recipe for weak government, proving that a two-party coalition could be more than the sum of its parts. We were forging a new politics on a daily basis.

But then came tuition fees and the AV referendum. Significantly weakened, the party leadership bowed to pressure from those in the party who were never happy with the coalition in the first place, and who were calling for a strategy of “differentiation” just a fifth of the way through the parliament.

But not only did we “differentiate” too early, we went about it in completely the wrong way, replacing the rhetoric of progress with that of division, and negotiation and compromise with internal opposition.

This was the new politics we tried to sell, and the voters didn’t much like it. A ComRes poll published earlier this week had only 19% of respondents desiring another coalition in 2015.

And while “differentiation” did nothing to improve our electoral fortunes, it all but destroyed the chance to sell coalition as a new and better way of doing things. What Clegg realised but failed to articulate early enough was that the success of the government was a prerequisite to (though not a guarantee of) later electoral success.

There are some lessons here for the leadership, but there are more for the party members who forced Clegg down this path in 2011. Whether it will be learned in time, or at all, remains to be seen.

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?

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • lloyd harris 2nd Aug '13 - 8:56am

    In my opinion the trouble isn’t differentiation the polls had dropped before that idea was put into action, but failure to be seen as delivering policies that set us apart from the other two – Electoral Reform, Elected House of Lords, Environmentalism.

    It is great we have got the income tax reform to take the lower earners out of tax and the pupil premium, but that are not enough on their own to make people feel we have got the balance of working in coalition right. At the moment it looks like the Tories are running a mock and we are powerless to stop them.

  • The whole experience has been totally coloured by the dreadful state of the public finances. If people associate the word coalition with the word cuts, then that is the reason for this unpopularity. We can’t escape this reality. We also need to be talking about the positive side of the coalition: that one party can stop the complete madness of the extremes in our political system. Under the Tories, cuts would have been far bigger, our relations with the rest of the EU even worse, workplace rights would have been totally shredded and many other things would have happened that only have tiny minority support from the right.

    Also, of course it is clear that supporters of the two big parties want their own party to have total control with a minority of the votes. That was what the AV result was about and that is what this poll shows.

  • One thing I hope people — at large as well as Lib Dems — take away from this is that coalition isn’t in itself good or bad — it’s just another mode of forming government. One very true thing that the Liberal Democrats can say about this coalition government is that, with all its faults, it is *not as bad* as an undiluted Tory government would have been. That is, no doubt, not saying *very* much; but it is basically what the majority of the electorate voted for. They definitely rejected the Labour government, but they were not so enthusiastic about Cameron’s “liberal Conservatives” (how hollow those words sound today) as to give them a solid majority either. Obviously there was no great passion for the Liberal Democrats — and so we end up with the cockeyed situation we have now: basically a Tory government with some Lib Dems acting as a very light-weight brake on the whole affair.

    What I hope people will not conclude, but fear they will, is that there is something illegitimate about a coalition government, and that *any* coalition will be worse than a majority government — and that therefore they should oppose all attempts to have a more proportional system, or indeed that they have to vote for one of the Big Parties to avoid any future coalition — that is effectively to say, to keep the Liberal Democrats out. I think there’s a great extent to which both Big Parties have pushed the line that Liberal Democrats = proportionality = coalition = *this* coalition = Bad (from Labour’s point of view, because they are out of power; from the Tory point of view, because they can’t do everything they’d like). And, from the leadership perspective, there’s an unfortunate tendency to defend not just the idea of coalition but *this* coalition simply because they are in it — a defence which tends to feed the anti-Lib Dem point of view. The end result could be the poisoning of the national discourse against these ideas for a generation.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Aug '13 - 8:34am

    The thesis of this article is nonsense. Are people complaining now “the problem with this government is that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are always disagreeing so nothing can be done?”. No, well, apart from a few right-wing Conservatives. Nick Thornsby writes “then came tuition fees and the AV referendum. Significantly weakened, the party leadership bowed to pressure from those in the party who were never happy with the coalition in the first place”, but the message coming across loud and clear in the AV referendum was that voters then ALREADY were against the idea of coalition a year into it and so were susceptible to the argument we should keep our current electoral system with its distortion which makes coalitions unusual. The reason people gave for being unhappy with the idea of coalition government is that they saw it as a party campaigning on one thing, then getting “in power” and voting for completely different policies. They meant us. What Nick Thornsby writes as the coalition idea being successful was what people saw as the Liberal Democrats just giving up on their own ideas and just accepting and voting for Conservative Party ideas instead.

    Once again we have the nasty party activists blamed with this party leadership “bowing” to their pressure. Oh, according to Nick Thornbsy, we should stop thinking for ourselves and listening to what we hear others saying, and reporting what we see at grass roots level and asking our leadership to take that into account – instead we should follow the Party Line from our Dear Leader, whatever it is this week. That is Leninist politics, and I am a Liberal and against that sort of thing.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Aug '13 - 8:38am


    The whole experience has been totally coloured by the dreadful state of the public finances. If people associate the word coalition with the word cuts, then that is the reason for this unpopularity.

    They do, and it was obvious when the coalition was formed that it would be facing this difficult economic situation and so having to make unpleasant cuts. This was a good pragmatic reason for us not to have gone into it wanting to make a big thing about how wonderful it is, and wanting to claim equal credit for the government’s policies with the Conservatives.

  • Sean O'Curneen 3rd Aug '13 - 9:03am

    I’m not entirely convinced by this post. Does it really matter whether the electorate like the concept of coalition? They are not asked to vote for coalition governments, but for political parties, and to be more precise for individual MPs. Coalition governments are the result of a hung parliament, an outcome which people don’t consciously vote for. Where it does matter is in a referendum to change the electoral system to make coalitions less rare. In that situation it does matter whether people like the concept of coalition or not. It may be a factor in a general election if voters blame one side of the coalition more than the other and choose not to vote for it to keep it out, but that still isn’t really about the concept of coalition, but more to do with the given party’s performance and/or perceptions. Our party has made mistakes in government, but for me the responsible thing to do was to provide the country with stable government and that is what our party has done. The key is to make sure mistakes are not made in what remains of this parliament, and demonstrate our influence and how things would have been different without us in government.

  • Simon Banks 3rd Aug '13 - 9:30am

    As for that poll, such things depend on the questions you ask. Others have set out a range of options (Conservative majority government, Labour majority, Con-Lib coalition, Lab-Lib coalition) and come up with a majority wanting no overall control, albeit predictably split along party lines. Besides, let’s face it, most supporters of any party would love it to have a majority and the poll may have led people to think of the present coalition only. It’s no surprise that most Tories would prefer outright control and many Lib Dems are unhappy with the coalition.

    As for differentiation, it was much needed once we’d given the impression of being packed up and delivered, mildly protesting rather late, for Tory policies the vast majority of our supporters opposed. The problem about differentiation has been that it’s been largely reactive. That shouldn’t suggest any different reaction when we are faced by illiberal proposals from the Conservative part of the government, but it does suggest the importance of the difficult task of making clear a theme in our differentiation. To be fair, I do believe Nick Clegg is trying to do this.

  • robert sayer 3rd Aug '13 - 9:53am

    prior to the 2010 election pundits were making the point that whoever won, it would lead to them being out of government at the following election for at least 20 years. Measured against that prediction the coalition has done well. The problem is ,that the Lib Dem side of the coalition isnt benefiting. Why, because we appeared to be a party who said things in opposition and went with the flow in power. To begin to build our credibility we have to continue to shout about our achievements but propound alternatives to the populist cry of the Tories.Even Lib Dem members have left over single issues,so it is important to show those of us who are still here that we have a programme for the future embedded in Liberal history.We cannot just say the Tories are nasty(which they are ) but what alternatives are available in an understandable way.

  • What I have learnt from this coalition is that a junior partner’s influence is eviscerated as soon as the junior partner loses the ability to bring down the Government at will. The junior partner is also weaker when when the opposition is weak.

  • Allan Heron 5th Aug '13 - 1:55pm

    Grumble. Had a longish post but LDV seemed unavailable when it was submitted and I lost the text. Clearly, a conspiracy 😉

    Crux of my comment was that differentiation is an intrinsic part of any coalition arrangement, but that Clegg spent the first twelve months doing the opposite using many opportunities to emphasise the alleged similarities between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. This was a major tactical error and absolutely unnecessary, leading to discussions about electoral pacts and mergers rather than the efficacy of coalition government.

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