Lessons of Coalition (8): 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 Robin McGhee, co-treasurer of Liberal Youth, shares his thoughts.

We should organise ministers better

When entering coalition, Nick Clegg decided to spread out his party’s influence across government so that every aspect of the party’s manifesto could be implemented, at least in part. He did this by appointing ministers in nearly every government department- either as the Cabinet minister heading the department or as a junior minister running one part of it. The results have been mixed.

On the one hand the Lib Dems can indeed claim to have implemented uniquely liberal policies across government, frequently spearheaded by tenacious junior ministers against the will of the more senior Tory minister in their department.

On the other hand, it has created a situation where the Lib Dems have been tainted by the all worst excesses of Conservative government, and where we have often been obliged to compromise on our own policies because of the presence of Conservatives in every department.

A future coalition could consider a different approach. Instead of spreading our desperately limited resources thinly across government, we could divide up government departments by party in their entirety.

I’m sure many Liberal Democrats would agree with me if I suggested that complete Lib Dem control of the Home Office and Energy & Climate Change departments would utterly transform government policy in those arenas. We currently have five Cabinet Ministers- it seems reasonable to suggest we could ask for full control of a similar number of departments as the price of a future coalition. We could take responsibility for their decisions while legitimately absenting ourselves of responsibility for policies implemented by the other party in its own departments.

Of course there are many objections that could be raised to such a system. There is little point denying whipping would be more difficult as a party’s MPs would often have to vote for policies of the other party. But there is arguably little difference between that and what the current coalition requires.

Some might argue that such a situation could not be understood by the public. But that is exactly what people used to say about coalitions full stop. The public are not idiots; they understand compromises and different kinds of compromises.

Dividing up departments and policy areas would allow the Liberal Democrats to implement our own policies in areas we know to be closest to our hearts. It would require sacrifice. I am not alone in going pale at the prospect of an all-Tory Department of Work and Pensions, Health or Local Government. But I also know there are many Tories (and Labourites) who would gyrate with horror at the prospect of an all-Lib Dem Home Office. We should be bold.

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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • This is a terrible idea. The premise of a coalition is that it will implement the agreed coalition program and therefore it is important not to let one party do its own thing in some departments it controls. If we had done this would we have achieved the reform of pensions? Having a minister in each department should keep the leadership informed of things being planned in that department that are not discussed at cabinet level so if necessary they can be vetoed. We often say we have vetoed some Conservative policies if we did as suggested here we would not do so. Can you image how bad it would be if the Conservatives had total control of the Treasury?

  • I agree with Amalric, this would be unworkable. The Quad would be the only way of dealing with disputes on paperclip procurement auditing regulations. Nothing would ever get done. We can claim Lib Dem successes across Government (and get brickbats for the failures) without needing to pack out whole departments. I’d also imagine a Lib Dem Home Office with free-run over policy would be a deal-breaker for either of the other parties.

    As I’ve posted before, pairing legislation (we take pain only if you do) would be a more workable solution.

  • Alex Harvey 6th Aug '13 - 12:27pm

    Robin makes a very strong point here; it’s how coalitions tend to work in other European countries.

  • Foregone Conclusion 6th Aug '13 - 5:58pm

    It’s worth saying that most major decisions go through the Quad, and maybe Cabinet, anyway.

    Certainly in the Home Office, the excuse seems to be that Jeremy Browne is ‘busy’, which does suggest that the influence of junior ministers, bogged down in day-to-day administration, is pretty low.

  • William Barter 6th Aug '13 - 6:00pm

    It’s an interesting point. I think that there are two more important things to consider.

    1. Is it still workable to have a coalition agreement covering departments where one member of the coalition has no ministers? Or will ministers from the other side simply be able to find their way around issues without anyone there to hold them to account. Without some kind of agreement various departments might easily end up at loggerheads – with Lib Dems at business or energy working against Tories at Environment or Communities and Local Government, for example. That said, would that be so different from now?

    2. Can opponents of Robin’s proposed system claim that having a Lib Dem presence at the Home Office has helped at all in recent weeks, first with the immigration vans, and now with the spot checks taking place on individuals’ immigration status.

    I think that the best option to take might simply to make sure we have effective ministers. This may sound like a cheap answer, but I think Mark Pack once again makes an excellent point here: http://www.markpack.org.uk/44718/which-lib-dem-ministers-should-nick-clegg-sack/

  • Jonathan Brown 7th Aug '13 - 12:00am

    I’m torn. The merits of the suggestion are obvious, but I think it’s probably a case of ‘the grass is always greener’. If we did switch to divying up departments between us it would probably cause more tension as both parties reacted with horror at what other parts of the government were doing. Even if it would provide some political / electoral protection for us to be able to be identified with certain departments and disassociated from others, I suspect that the country is better off for having a spread of Lib Dems throughout government.

    I know this is how they tend to do it on the continent. I don’t know whether having a proportional voting system makes one way of doing things more workable. But even if we ended up feeling better thanks to our scrapping Trident, I bet we wouldn’t actually be happier overall once we realised that the Tories were deporting all the foreign students and entrepreneurs propping up our fragile economy.

  • I do think there is an element of grass is always greener – but electorally this is better, and democratically it is better,

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