Lessons of Coalition (9): 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 Rob Parsons shares his thoughts.

Understand the mechanics of government

Be grown up. It is possible to be grown up in politics, as exemplified by Vince Cable’s famous statement that the Tories are ruthless, calculating and tribal, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work with them. Whatever you think of Nick Clegg, I think one of his best contributions to the temper of this government has been to keep his cool and his bonhomie, and not get sucked into the puce faced yelling that too often disfigures both sides of the House, especially at PMQs. That is a win all round: it is good government, and the public show signs of liking it.

Be intelligent and be nimble. We were caught out too often early on by the pace of events. We took a while to understand how government was going to work. We have been bounced by Tory ambushes on a number of occasions, most noticeably on the privatisation of the NHS (I refuse to call it “reform”) and that has sometimes been painful. One issue about that episode was that when we found out what they were up to, we were slow to react. We learned a lot of lessons about intelligence (in the sense of information gathering) and about the mechanics of government. The simple solution of more bodies, more advisers in our offices was one of the answers. We have still been caught out from time to time. And that will continue, but better intelligence will reduce the number of incidents, and nimble footwork, with the occasional showdown, will reduce the impact when it does happen.

Expect incompetence. The Tories remain the nasty party of British politics. We expected them to be nasty (though I have to say they exceeded my expectations – Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare policies are poisonous, and the Home Office’s racial targeting of immigration “offenders” is unspeakable). We did not expect them to be as incompetent as they have been. They are not the party of safe hands that they claim to be. Labour will be just as incompetent from time to time (and so will we be): it goes with the territory. Live with it; manage it.

Keep thinking. The ideas above are about the mechanics of government. But the mechanics don’t work if you don’t have a philosophy. Philosophy is a living thing: it changes as the world changes. In a world where neoliberal orthodoxy is close to becoming hegemonic, we – the entire party, and friends – need more than ever to keep working at the basis of liberal democratic philosophy so that, in a fast changing, globalised and confusing world, our representatives in government have a compass and an anchor that they can rely on.

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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • It is unfortunate that “neo-liberal” is called that, in terms of our party name! I agree that we as a party need to be an anchor, but it is clear that we do take quite dramatically different views among ourselves – we do have some neo-liberals on board. It is also unfortunate, as you say, Rob, about neo-liberalism being an orthodoxy, just at the time when the world needs something else. Really for at least 150 years till the 80s most people thinking about politics, about how things run, or are managed, would have said that “markets” could not be the be-all and end-all. In many respects, at this point, we need to operate against the natural model and behaviour of markets – we need to have enough clout to reduce and localise production distribution and consumption, operating against the big boys in the market who are trying to encourage higher consumption, and bigger market share for themselves. As Lib Dems, this should be right at the heart of our agenda. This, of course, is not “centre” as Clegg would describe, but radical and new, certainly in the scale of it that we need.

  • Clear Thinker 7th Aug '13 - 9:48am

    I wonder if the main lesson to learn is that success will come from practical and useful policies, not from wondering where success will come from?

  • Peter Gardiner 7th Aug '13 - 2:04pm

    Following Rob Parson’s idea of offering just a few ideas, here’s one from me.

    Traditional economic thinking isn’t going to deal with climate change.
    It isn’t even going to deal with phosphate exhaustion or helium scarcity or water resource depletion until it is far too late because by the time the price begins to reflect scarcity, it is far too late to recover the position.

    As we saw in NewYork, USA economists said Hurricane Sandy was affordable. Prof Peter Morici of University of Maryland “estimated that some $15bn to $20bn will likely be spent on rebuilding after the storm, which could create as much as $36bn in an “economy with high unemployment and underused construction resources. When government authorities facilitate quick and effective rebuilding, the process of economic renewal can leave communities better off than before in many tangible ways.”
    Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said that depending on how long flooding lasts, the hurricane could maybe shave one tenth of a percent off US output during the quarter. “But you have to remember that the hurricane generates extra activity too, in terms of the cleanup and rebuilding,” he told the BBC. “In theory, it could even be a positive for the economy.” These are only two examples of the sort of thinking that permeates economists dealing with climate change.
    All no doubt true, but missing the point. Economists in USA are not taking the long view, even despite the loss of USA grain etc. Some of them still don’t appreciate quite what climate change will mean to their agriculture. We are already discovering in UK that it isn’t the temperature rise that is so difficult for agriculture, it is the failure of the seasons to follow in their established succession. There is no longer a time to sow and a time to reap.

    We can’t rely, as I thought we could, on a catastrophe bringing government economists to their senses. And if you look at how the City acts, economists running our country work on an even shorter time frame. Most major projects in UK still have to meet present value targets which take little account of the risks of climate change, and what is even sillier is that some projects, like flood protection, have to jump higher economic hurdles than road building just because they come under a different Government department. There will never be a Severn Barrage ( able to provide several percent of our total UK energy needs renewably) while we stick with short term economics, The French have had 60 years of benefit from their barrage at reims, and that wasn’t economically justified at the time.
    So we need to take a more radical view if we are to win this battle. Dieter Helm needs to be listened to. He at least has taken a realistic view of our children’s future.

  • The biggest handicap we have is the stunning similarity in the socioeconomic backgrounds of many of our MPs and the tories. We need a government of the people, for the people by the people. This simply is not possible when so many of our parliamentarians do not have the remotest idea of how ordinary working people live. This failure by the Liberal Party to represent ordinary working people, is what led to the creation of the Labour representation committee and later the Labour Party.

    It is time Liberal Democrats acted to ensure that we do not repeat this mistake, that we sound like and act for ordinary people in the street. Not something that Nick Clegg or David Laws, among others, can do.

  • Ben, I am sure that others here have done the same, but I hope I tried in my period as a PPC to bring a bit of “ordinary” to our line-up of MPs. Unfortunately it was not to be! It would be interesting to see and hear the perspectives (and backgrounds) of what one of my close friends and colleagues in the party would call “the young thrusters”.

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