LibLink: David Howarth’s thoughts on the way forward

David HowarthOn the Social Liberal Forum website, David Howarth (who was MP in Cambridge before Julian Huppert) has been telling us five things that we should never do again:

  • We must never again accept coalition with the Tories 
  • We must never again promote coalitionism
  • We must never again push centrism 
  • We must never again ignore evidence
  • We must never again fail to have the will to change 

and three things we should do now:

  • Clarify our values 
  • Find new ways of promoting our values
  • Rebuild a core vote

You can read his justifications in the article but we will just quote from two sections.

We must never again accept coalition with the Tories – Every time the party has entered into a coalition with the Tories it has come out seriously damaged. The one in the 1930s ended in a three way split and national irrelevance. This one might be worse. It is a near-death experience. We must never do this again. Why does this happen? Largely because we are a party built on values, not on protecting interests, and coalition with the Tories obscures the public’s view of our values. We end up looking like a party of manoeuvre, caring only about holding office.

Find new ways of promoting our values – Many people are now saying that we have to rebuild the party from local level, and especially through local government. But that is not enough. … My suggestion is that we need to organise the party in a new way, around campaigns that flow from our values, campaigns in which members can actively participate both at local and national levels. These shouldn’t just be clicktivism or public relations exercises. As in a local campaign to get something done, we should set out to make a real difference in the world.

An immediate example is that we should organise our members to put pressure on MPs and ministers on the snooper’s charter, an issue on which the government’s small majority might easily fall apart. Similarly we will need campaigns to save the Human Rights Act, to preserve Britain’s place in Europe and, though it might be hard to win an anti-NIMBY campaign, against banning new onshore wind farms. We should also be campaigning against the forthcoming £12 billion benefit cuts and more broadly against state bullying of the vulnerable (something we seemed to have stopped doing recently).


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames where she is still very active with the local party.

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  • Alisdair McGregor 11th May '15 - 10:53am

    Saying that we should not accept coalition with either party weakens our ability to get anything done with the other.

    Also, anyone who thinks Labour are “the nice party” is deluded. This disaster was (partly) because Labour spent 5 years demonising us for going into coalition, to the point of ignoring the Tories role in coalition entirely.

  • Are our MPs going to vote in favour of the in-out EU referendum bill? I certainly hope so, otherwise we will just cement our reputation for ignoring the will of the electorate. Let us not be shy of arguing the overwhelming case in favour of staying in

  • There will always be red lines (or there should have been) but surely a political party has to be adaptable and dynamic. I feel David is being much too reactionary here from Thursday night’s results.

  • So what exactly is he saying we should have done in 2010? And what precisely is “pushing centrism”?

    As I have posted elsewhere, we lost as many votes to the right as to the left at this election.What’s his answer to that?

    “Largely because we are a party built on values, not on protecting interests”. And what happens when people ignore “values” and decide they want their interests protected, as they did in this election?

    While agree with prioritising the campaign issues he sets out, the rest of this is pure nonsense.

  • Never is a very long time. But, without electoral reform, yes. Never again.

    The other four, yes. Especially the last one. I was as guilty as anyone of believing that not rocking the boat ahead of the election was the safe option that would deliver a good twenty something seat base to build on. We know better now.

    And thanks Mr Howarth for the suggestions about the future. It’s getting on for time we stopped combing through the rubble and started moving on.

  • Travis Kolber 11th May '15 - 11:14am

    We must never again push centrism? David, you realise this is the Liberal Democrat Party, right? Being in the centre is the whole point of our party’s existence.

  • On centrism, I took that to mean rejecting equidistance and a campaign that focussed too heavily on what we might bring as junior satellite to either bigger party. Which might explain why the voters turned in roughly equal proportions to each of them, on the night.

  • What Mark Wright said.

  • Rabi Martins 11th May '15 - 11:22am

    I know we all feel very badly bruised in the light of the thoroughly bad general election result (understatement of the year ?)

    But it would be criminal to brush out all the good we did for the Party by taking up the opportunity to be in government when the opportunity presented itself Let us not forget that for the first time in recent history we were able to get a number of our policies implemented – we were able to deliver no less than 75% of our 2010 Manifesto because we took the bold decision to enter into Coalition with the Party that had the largest number of seats and vote – which happened to be the Conservatives
    So I am afraid I reject your first two propositions :
    We must never again accept coalition with the Tories
    We must never again promote coalitionism

    As I see it the problem was not what we did but how we acted in Coalition
    Our biggest mistake was to fail to keep our differentiation from as a separate political force from the outset
    We allowed ourselves to be identified too closely with the government rather than to the point people forgot we were a separate Party that was acting as the conscience and the restraining hand on the Conservatives

    I have always wondered why we took on so many Ministerial Positions and why our MPs were not given more freedom to voice their concerns more openly
    Even on the Tuition fees I think we could have saved face if the government ministers had voted one way due to collective responsibility and the rest voted another

    Rather than refusing to enter into future Coalitions with the Tories or Labour or even SNP we should use the valuable experience we gained this time to do it in a way that is even etter for the country and does not hurt the Party

  • Surely by criticising centrism David is referring to centre of the roadism – all the uninspirational drivel about crossing the road and not getting run over!

    Alleluia for someone who mentions looking at evidence. Besides the little matter that the bedroom tax did not work even in its own terms, it was also electoral madness. Bermondsey was lost by about 5000 votes Labour claimed, pretty plausibly, that about 5000 people in the area were affected by the bedroom tax.

  • Glenn Andrews 11th May '15 - 11:43am

    Travis; Being in the centre is not the whole point of being a Liberal Democrat, being liberal and a social democrat – and opposing the illiberal conservative Tory and Labour parties is the point of being a Liberal Democrat surely.

  • I’d like to know how we can want PR but not want to be in a Coalition and therefore not actually implement any policies.

  • Peter Bancroft 11th May '15 - 11:48am

    I’d be interested to hear someone make the argument as to why a coalition with Labour is ok but one with the Conservatives is not. I suspect that it will reveal some hidden political misconceptions and put some doubt into that part of David’s conclusion. Obviously not everyone will agree, but it seems clear that it’s partly the pre-2010 “Labour lite” positioning which caused a lot of the feeling of betrayal in the first place.

  • @ James Moore


    If we can’t be in a coalition, how on earth do we get our policies implemented?

    @Jonathan Pile
    “No more Centrism, no more coalitions, but yes toa return to core values”

    Sounds like you want to be in a protest group, not a political party. Political parties (or at least this one) exist to put their values into practice in government.

  • Part of the problem was that we had too many ministers as a proportion of the parliamentary party, leaving not a high enough proportion of MPs outside the Whitehall bubble and able to more dispassionately take the temperature of the country. I wouldn’t say no more coalition ever – though I think it’s clear that coalition and FPTP are not great bedfellows – but no coalition unless we have at least 100 (maybe even 120) MPs.

  • amber hartman 11th May '15 - 12:09pm

    I feel it is ESSENTIAL to carry on with what those who sadly lost were doing. I spoke to an organisation who a non reelected MP chaired. They said they were calling other parties to get another MP to take over. We cannot let this happen- (I told them not to- I am waiting to get a reply from Alistair Carmichael and Tom Brake. Left messages). We need to let those ‘past MPs’ carry on as Chairs under our 8 to help 2020. I am happy to sit in on all meetings and help wherever possible, as I did before.
    Teams need to support 2020 now as volunteers. We care.
    I suggest we set community groups working with British Youth Council.
    I was going to meet people at Westminster on behalf of MPs, set up a Childrens Panel asking their thoughts so we could try and action. I was working on trying to get CareLeavers become advocates for children in care. John Hemming and I were working on getting an online school gov approved for children who cannot attend school for various reasons. I personally want to carry on but cannot without the current 8 working with me.

  • Elaine Woodard 11th May '15 - 12:10pm

    What we can’t establish in 2015 is what would have happened to the Liberal Democrats if we had rejected a coalition in 2010. I voted for the coalition but I think we made a lot of mistakes in how this was handled – lessons we can learn for the future. But I have to say I would never again vote for a coalition with anyone unless we had a PR electoral system.

    I do agree with most of what David has written with regards to what needs to be done now – especially that we need to clarify our values. There were times in the last five years I wasn’t sure what we stood for.

  • I am one of the recent rejoiners to the Liberal Democrats (having been a member for 23 years up to 2010).
    For me the breaking of the pledge was far worse than joining the coalition. The electorate loved the pledge – it was straightforward and was within the power of every MP, whether in government or not. It should have been absolutely non-negotiable in the coalition agreement. For Nick Clegg to come out and apologise for making the pledge but not for breaking it just made matters worse.
    Breaking the pledge was the main reason for Nick’s hugely negative approval rating, which has dogged the Lib Dems for the entire parliament. I like Nick Clegg and respect much of what he stands for and has achieved in coalition, but he was damaged goods from then on, and damaged the rest of the party (even those who stuck to the pledge) at every stage. I made my own pledge not to be a member or deliver a leaflet for the party while he was leader, which I have stuck to.

    Regarding centrism, I agree completely with David Howarth. The Labour party is going to lurch back to the right and there will be no room between them and the Tories. We need to redefine the political map as a triangle with apices Conservatism, Socialism and Liberalism. Our core values are very different from the other parties on so many issues. The most distinctive for me that affects every other policy is a distrust of centralism of power, whether in big business or government. That told me without even pausing to think about it that a top-down reorganisation of the NHS was a big mistake, for example. Backing STV is another example of giving power to people over parties – I was so very disappointed that the Lib Dems went for an AV referendum, which is not remotely proportional and was easily portrayed as being motivated mainly by self-interest

  • Douglas Downie 11th May '15 - 12:18pm

    Er… no
    Rather than jumping to (probably)erroneous conclusions surely what we should do is survey those voters who voted for us last time round and found out why they didn’t vote for us this time.

    My guess is that we went in with a leader whose ratings were as negative as they could have been – which goes all the way back to the tuition fees fiasco.

    Secondly we played up the coalition opportunity – laying open the possibility of Labour/SNP/LibDem coalition. The very last thing voters in England and Wales wanted to do was to give power to the SNP, and the stronger Sturgeon performed.

    The way to have minimised the effect of these would have been to change the leader, and secondly to stop talking about coalition and concentrated on winning seats; whatever the electorate decided would be whatever the electorate decided

    But that’s just my views – which are really not that important. The important part is not to jump to a conclusion but to find out why the voters changed their votes as they did, and address their concerns as directly as we can.

  • Alexander Hegenbarth 11th May '15 - 12:21pm

    While I agree that we need to rebuild our core values I don’t think we should abandon centralism entirely or we will alienate a number of voters in currently Tory controlled areas. For many voters in those areas the Lib Dems have offered an acceptable alternative to the Conservatives (as opposed to voting Labour) and a potential Lib Dem lurch to the left will leave them feeling out in the cold

  • I quite like David Howarth’s suggestions. I don’t suppose I’ll be supporting or voting Liberal Democrat in future since I think the party needs about twenty years to recover – and at the moment it’s not a party that I can imagine supporting. It’s tainted by dishonesty because of its rapid rejection of the campaign on which Nick Clegg and Vince Cable toured the country, and damaged badly by the disdain with which those who objected were treated immediately after coalition. The decisions that were endorsed and whipped by Liberal Democrats in the past five years have caused widespread distress. We need a liberal voice and we need a serious democracy but I don’t think the Liberal Democrats are in any position to offer it yet – and I’m not wasting my political engagement on a party because I feel a bit sorry for them. But in the long term, there’s an outside chance that the party could be rebuilt if it returns to its own principles, as expressed in the preamble to the Liberal Democrats’ constitution. Perhaps reading this and reflecting on its implications would be a good start in rebuilding the party. I’ve pasted it in full below. In the meantime, I do have some sympathy for party workers and activists, and hope they find a way to work for the better society and world we all urgently need.

    “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.

    We look forward to a world in which all people share the same basic rights, in which they live together in peace and in which their different cultures will be able to develop freely. We believe that each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment, for the long term continuity of life in all its forms. Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality. Recognising that the quest for freedom and justice can never end, we promote human rights and open government, a sustainable economy which serves genuine need, public services of the highest quality, international action based on a recognition of the interdependence of all the world’s peoples and responsible stewardship of the earth and its resources. We believe that people should be involved in running their communities. We are determined to strengthen the democratic process and ensure that there is a just and representative system of government with effective Parliamentary institutions, freedom of information, decisions taken at the lowest practicable level and a fair voting system for all elections. We will at all times defend the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely, and we will protect the right of citizens to enjoy privacy in their own lives and homes. We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. We similarly commit ourselves to the promotion of a flourishing system of democratic local government in which decisions are taken and services delivered at the most local level which is viable.

    We will foster a strong and sustainable economy which encourages the necessary wealth creating processes, develops and uses the skills of the people and works to the benefit of all, with a just distribution of the rewards of success. We want to see democracy, participation and the co-operative principle in industry and commerce within a competitive environment in which the state allows the market to operate freely where possible but intervenes where necessary. We will promote scientific research and innovation and will harness technological change to human advantage.

    We will work for a sense of partnership and community in all areas of life. We recognise that the independence of individuals is safeguarded by their personal ownership of property, but that the market alone does not distribute wealth or income fairly. We support the widest possible distribution of wealth and promote the rights of all citizens to social provision and cultural activity. We seek to make public services responsive to the people they serve, to encourage variety and innovation within them and to make them available on equal terms to all.

    Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries; we are committed to fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur and to promote the free movement of ideas, people, goods and services. Setting aside national sovereignty when necessary, we will work with other countries towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security. Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration and work for unity based on these principles. We will contribute to the process of peace and disarmament, the elimination of world poverty and the collective safeguarding of democracy by playing a full and constructive role in international organisations which share similar aims and objectives. These are the conditions of liberty and social justice which it is the responsibility of each citizen and the duty of the state to protect and enlarge. The Liberal Democrats consist of women and men working together for the achievement of these aims.”

  • Stephen Hesketh 11th May '15 - 12:22pm

    Usual fantastic insightful stuff from David Howarth.

    I am with you word for word and line by line David.

  • Graham Evans 11th May '15 - 12:24pm

    I think that the personal animus towards Nick Clegg shown by David Howarth in his original blog is a regrettable characteristic of those who opposed the Coalition. It is surely possible to accept that like many decisions in life there was no clear cut answer as to how to proceed in 2010. Moreover, comparisons with the fate of the Liberals in the 1930s are easy to make in retrospect, but the Britain of 2010 was a very different world to that of 1930. However, just as Ed Miliband’s belief that Britain had moved to the left between 2010 and 2015 has proved incorrect, so those of us who supported the Coalition must accept that the experiment has failed and that the British people do not reward a junior coalition partner, particularly in the absence PR as a safety net. Even so, while David’s proposals on campaigning to rebuild support do offer a way forward for the next five years, given the fact that we now have a majority Government, I do not find his reference to New Zealand and minority government very convincing in helping us chart a course in the event of a future minority government, whether Labour or Conservative. Indeed it seems to me that the only way the LDs could continue to advance in these circumstances would be a minority Conservative Government dependent on UKIP and DUP support. Any other outcome in 2020 would set back any progress made by the LDs in the coming five years.

  • Stephen Hesketh 11th May '15 - 12:25pm

    RC11th May ’15 – 11:51am
    [@Jonathan Pile: “No more Centrism, no more coalitions, but yes toa return to core values”]

    “Political parties (or at least this one) exist to put their values into practice in government.”

    Spot on RC … VALUES being the operative word!

  • ” Similarly we will need campaigns to save the Human Rights Act, to preserve Britain’s place in Europe and, though it might be hard to win an anti-NIMBY campaign, against banning new onshore wind farms. ”

    Commiserations to all those who lost last week, whatever political differences we all may have, the wholesale rejection after in many cases a lifetime of service, is a cruel conclusion to a career whatever business you are in.

    My party UKIP like yours will continue regardless, hopefully broadening and deepening our message especially in the Labour heartlands upto 2020. To most of us 2015 was just a station on the journey to 2020, and although our failure to advance our seat number was a disappointment, the solidifying of our vote was a great bonus.

    How we respectively perform will be a matter of interest going forward, though even at this early stage it is becoming clear that UKIP will persue it’s populist agenda, or in other words listening to what the concerns of the people are, and trying to respond to them. In contrast it would seem from some of the comments I have highlighted above, many in the LibDems wish to continue to follow a path of identifying a series of policies that the LibDems think should be imposed on the people, and then defend them with your dying breath against public opinion. I fancy you will be no more successful in 2020 following that path as you were in 2010, but good luck with trying.

  • ” I fancy you will be no more successful in 2020 following that path as you were in 2010, but good luck with trying.”

    I fancy you will be no more successful in 2020 following that path as you were in 2015, but good luck with trying.

  • David Howarth 11th May '15 - 12:37pm

    Thanks for all of these comments. Some of them are answered in the discussions on the SLF site so I won’t repeat what I said there.

    The essential problem is that for a party of values, such as the Liberal Democrats, coalition as a junior partner with a party whose values are very different from our own tends to be catastrophic. Coalition obscures the process by which compromises are arrived at and hides our values from public view. We start to look like a party of manoeuvre, one that has no values but only seeks office for the sake of power or personal advancement.

    It would be different if we were a party whose main purpose was to protect specific interests. All that matters to that kind of party is bringing home the bacon. But we are not that kind of party.

    The result is that we can only do coalition as junior partners with parties that are not that different from us in terms of values. If we want to do deals with parties that do not share our values they have to be done in a way that makes it possible to be absolutely clear with the public exactly how what we have agreed is consonant with our values. Whether parties other than the Conservatives are the first type of party or the second is something worth debating. But it seems very clear to me that the Conservative Party is a party of the first type.

    The remark that I am implying that I am not interested in putting our programme into practice in government forgets that I used to be a council leader and did precisely that. But how I got to be in that position was by winning an election outright. If we are not in that position we need to balance possible policy gains against the political losses that flow from particular ways of trying to achieve those gains. There is no point risking going out of existence, which is what we have just done, for a few comparatively minor policy gains.

    As for the past, let it go. I am talking about now, not what happened in 2010, when we didn’t know what we know now. Harping on about the achievements of coalition and all the propaganda stuff about 75% of our manifesto is a dead end. Only 8% of the electorate believed it. We might get some credit for what happened during the coalition as people start to remember what we stand for, and that is especially likely to happen around the things we stopped, such as the snoopers’ charter and repeal of the Human Rights Act. But that would be merely an incidental benefit of getting back to campaigning on our issues – issues of liberalism versus authoritarianism most obviously but also issues of social justice.

    As for people who think the party is nothing but centrist, I think that just proves my point about our values having been hidden from the public for five years.

  • Michael Rees-Antonio 11th May '15 - 12:41pm

    I disagree on his point of never pushing coalition. This was hard and unpleasant but it was the right thing to do. I think being honest, transparent and doing the right thing are most important in such decision making but what was probably needed (easy to say in hindsight, of course) was some more forward thinking and risk assessment. What was the right thing to do long term? Could we have better prepared for this current outcome?

  • @Douglas ” The important part is not to jump to a conclusion but to find out why the voters changed their votes as they did, and address their concerns as directly as we can.”

    Exactly. Given that we are not to be afforded the time to do this before a leadership election, a mistake in my view, the new leader should commit publicly to undertake and be bound by the findings of such an exercise. The last thing we need is exercises in told you so-ism such as the one being carried out above .

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th May '15 - 1:12pm

    I wouldn’t want to say NEVER have a coalition with the Conservatives, as I agree that throws our independence away and makes us seem a branch of the Labour Party.

    While I very much dislike the idea of coalition with the Conservatives, I did agree that in May 2010 just about everything was pushing that way: the fact that a stable coalition with Labour could not be formed as it would not have had a majority, the fact that Labour was the outgoing governing party people felt had had its time, the fact that Labour clearly was not that interested in a coalition and actually wanted to go into opposition.

    However, the whole idea of multi-party politics and the coalitions that must come from that idea was wrecked by the way Clegg handled it. The first thing we needed to make clear, at the start and again and again and again, was that we did not CHOOSE to “put the Tories in”, it was not the case of us looking at both Labour and he Tories and deciding the Tories were more like us. Because that was not made clear, and because that is how the “hung Parliament” situation was always portrayed in commentary before May 2010, most people believed that was the case, that we were these mighty “kingmakers” and that we made the decision to have the government we did in May 2010 and could just as well have had a Labour-LibDem government. We lost a huge number of supporters for that reason, some at the start but many later because Labour played on it, and incredibly and damagingly quite a few Liberal Democrats also didn’t seem to see how damaging it was to play up the “kingmaker” role rather than play it down.

    The second thing we needed to make clear was that the compromises coming out of the coalition were not our ideal, they had inevitably to reflect the balance of the parties in it. Clegg and the Cleggies just didn’t do that. They seemed to think the tactic that would work would be to exaggerate our influence and make out that the policies coming from the coalition were ideal, twist things to pretend they were what was wanted in the first place.

    The third thing we needed to make clear was that the distortions of the electoral system greatly reduced our influence. I don’t recall Clegg ever using this point, ever stating that the Conservatives had 500% more seats than us even though they only had 50% more of the vote, and this was due to the distortional representation system that the Conservatives and Labour support but we oppose. Instead, from the start he seemed to want to give the impression that we were equal partners, that numbers of MPs do not matter.

    The fourth thing that needed to be made clear was that this was a business arrangement flowing from the way people voted and the way the system distorted the vote, not a “love in”, not a “marriage”, not a “jumping into bed”. He should have angrily slapped down those who used that analogy, but he didn’t, he let it grow, and did much to make it seem it was just that – a marriage meaning a permanent arrangement because those involved love each other. Most of our voters do not love the Conservatives, most voted for us because they saw us as the best opposition to the Conservatives.

    The fifth thing that needed to be made clear was that we were not shutting doors forever on co-operation with the other party. Indeed we needed to keep those doors open, and make use of them when we needed to push our points within the coalition. When pushing for things which the Conservatives did not like, we needed to show there was wider support for them than just us, and that meant showing support from the parties outside the coalition. This is always going to be necessary for a small party in a coalition. But Clegg didn’t do that. Instead he joined in with the Conservatives in partisan and biased attacks on the Labour Party, and never made any attack on past Conservative governments, though to me a lot of what went wrong in the 1997-2010 Labour governments was due to New Labour taking on too many of the assumptions which stemmed from Thatcherite Conservatism, and due to damaging long-term effects of much of what the 1979-1997 Conservative governments did.

    The sixth thing that needed to be made clear was that just because we were in coalition with the Conservatives we would not ourselves move from the wide-ranging party we were before, with some, yes, who held “economic liberal” positions and so were much happier with the broad thrust of the coalition, but others who very much disliked that. But Clegg, and those surrounding him, did the opposite. Clegg was extremely partisan in his appointments, he and those surrounding him made remarks which were contemptuous of those who were not of the economic liberal sort within the party, and seemed to be using the fact of the coalition to try and push the party in their direction permanently.

    The seventh thing that needed to be made clear was that we reserved the right to pull out of the coalition if the Conservatives would not agree to go along with the terms of the Coalition Agreement, or if it became clear that the coalition was widely disliked in the country and no longer had the support which had put it in place. I’m not saying the threat to pull out should have been made every week, sure it should have been reserved for a serious disagreement or loss of confidence. But Clegg threw it away at the start. When the Conservatives reneged on the Coalition agreement by insisting on a large-scale top-down reorganisation of the NHS in direct contradiction to what was written there, Clegg saw it as his job to try and persuade us to go along with the Conservatives (and ignore party opinion if it didn’t) rather than to stand form in defence of his party and what it had agreed to when it agreed to the coalition.

    So, here we are. David Howarth is quite right that going into coalition with the Conservatives was always going to be a damaging thing for us to do. I think some, indeed a considerable, loss of seat and support was inevitable. We needed to be aware of this and thus been very cautious. Well, I’ve given seven ways in which, thanks to Clegg, the opposite was done, hence making a difficult and damaging situation even more difficult and damaging. Others can perhaps think of more. We were extraordinarily badly led in 2010-2015.

  • David Evans 11th May '15 - 1:12pm

    Peter B, I don’t think we could be accused of promoting ourselves as labour-lite since the SDP merger. Indeed under Blair, it became very clear we were more radical left than New Labour, simply because we stuck to one of our core values i.e. no-one shall enslaved by poverty, while Labour moved to being very comfortable with big money. That coupled with our refusal to conform to Blair’s Iraq rhetoric covered both ignorance and conformity. However, being in coalition with the Conservatives led to Poverty being largely lost, Conformity went out with Cabinet Collective responsibility, and Ignorance was undermined by a plethora of poll data designed more to support an entrenched position rather than inform decision making. If you think there is more to it than what I have put here, please let me know.

    TCO “the new leader should commit publicly to undertake and be bound by the findings of such an exercise.” Isn’t that what got us into the mess over tuition fees? Or in more practical terms, where would we get the money from to do such an exercise of the magnitude needed to produce a really watertight case, so that you would dare commit to its conclusions without question?

  • Phil Beesley 11th May '15 - 1:16pm

    T-J: “Never is a very long time. But, without electoral reform, yes. Never again.”

    I think that’s about right. Under PR (perhaps even AV), the Conservative party would be a different organisation. It would be unlikely to exist for long in its current composition. There’s some commentary that the Cons majority shows that Cameron has detoxified the party. That belief is mistaken; voters perceive that the Conservatives have changed but the ugly authoritarian right persists in Parliament. They will always work to undermine any coalition or compromises as a majority government. How did John Major describe three members of his own cabinet? “Bastards”, wasn’t it?

    Is Labour in Parliament less toxic? Even in the New Labour years, there were some unpleasant MPs. Some became cabinet ministers. But Labour knew that if they were to be a party of government, those people had to be isolated. At the national level, Labour is better at managing its nasty wing than the Conservatives.

    At the local level, circumstances vary. We’ve all met decent Conservatives, new and old Labour types etc with whom we can do business.

  • It’s important for Liberal Democrats to understand that this election result was not in spite of all the things you achieved in Coalition, it was because of them. The electorate has rejected your policy platform of the last five years and this years manifesto.

  • Phil Beesley 11th May '15 - 1:41pm

    Thank you, Matthew Huntbach for those thoughts. I’ll pick on one of those points: “The fifth thing that needed to be made clear was that we were not shutting doors forever on co-operation with the other party.”

    Lib Dems at council level have formed coalitions or co-operation agreements with other parties for years. It’s something that activists understand is a consequence of democracy and necessary for practical government. It means that Lib Dems, Conservatives, Greens and Labour sometimes end up in unusual collaborations.

    Perhaps activists and the politically informed acquire understanding via osmosis. Or perhaps we should spend more effort explaining why and how we came to a particular agreement. If we explain decisions to the electorate (or even just the political writer at the local newspaper), there is a small chance that they’ll understand our motives. If we don’t explain, there’s zero chance.

    Explaining to other people has a further benefit. It forces you to examine your choices, to reflect on what is important to us all.

  • Sadie Smith 11th May '15 - 1:42pm

    Delighted that this got picked up and discussed on LDV. I wondered if it would meet the old criteria but am very pleased.
    I always listen to David and found the whole of the contribution refreshing and helpful.

    No other Party should be able to assume that, if necessary we would share power. Having seen how the Tory Party behaved over the AV referendum. lords reform and most of all the deliberate targeting of LD held seats, trusting them even a little bit is asking o lot. But many of us see Labour in the same way- not reliable. There couldbe exceptional circumstances. But any politician or civil servant trying to overstate a crisis should have a much tougher burden of proof in future.
    It will be much healthier putting forward themes and policies which are known to be truly independent.

    And, should any future Parly Party find themselves in exceptional circumstances, they ought to be able to draw on warnings about what not to do as well as positive advice.

  • Gwyn Williams 11th May '15 - 1:48pm

    We are not the masters of our own destiny. We define our political position in terms of the two main parties. If the the Labour party moves to the left and its a given that the Conservatives will be drawn to the right , then inevitably we will be seen by the public as the Centre Party whatever we say. If the Labour Party moves to the right, then we would be foolish to deliberately move to the left. At this time we cannot rule out any option. However we need to define ourselves by our values. The Party will recover. It’s just when?

  • Eddie Sammon 11th May '15 - 1:55pm

    Cllr Mark Wright is right. There’s no future in being a mini Labour Party and if the idea is to go back to being “further left than Labour” then it just won’t be credible after five years in coalition with the Conservatives.


  • Julian Tisi 11th May '15 - 2:10pm

    I agree with David Howarth’s things we must do now but disagree with the rest of what he has to say.

    We were always on a hiding to nothing in this coalition for at least two reasons. The first being that 2010 gave the incoming government the most challenging set of economic circumstances for generations and this would inevitably mean unpopular decisions would have to be taken. The second being that Britain had previously had no experience of coalition and the prevailing view was that this would be weak, unstable and constantly at the mercy of the junior partner who would forever threaten to bring it down. It is to our credit – and in the long term perhaps we will get some reward for it – that we did what needed to be done and provided stable, strong government when it was needed. Our hypocrite Labour friends know this and need to reflect on the many policies they’ve criticised that they would themselves have pursued. But looking to Europe, junior partners in coalitions tend to get beaten up. In Britain it was all the more difficult because people didn’t understand coalition. We had to show that it worked as otherwise how would we ever get into government?

  • @ G

    You never cease with your negativity do you?

    On the contrary, very quickly on a whole range of issues, we will find that we were right and that the Tories are doing their best to ruin things in a whole load of areas, from environmental policy to human rights.

    Isn’t it time, g, for you either to join the party and participate positively in the debate, or else stop posting here?

  • RC the best thing to do with small Labour t-rolls is ignore them 🙂

  • Bernard Aris 11th May '15 - 3:53pm

    As a born Dutchman and lifelong Social Liberal I could not disagree more with shying, cowering away from “Coalitionism”. My Dutch party, D66, was founded to reorganize Dutch Democracy (make it more direct: directly chosen town mayors for example), and ever since the Radicals (Tom Paine when he was back in Britain) and the Reform Acts British Liberals have striven for the same.
    Coalitionism, if practised by the LibDems, is the best remedy for Militantism and TUC closed shops in the PLP within Labour and Europhobic , Police State Toryism within the new government. It also gives smaller parties a (often bitter, but educational) taste of government, and brings new ideas, new perspectives into governing. Behind every “green Tory” on a bike there’s his chauffeur-driven Bentley; behind each green LibDem there’s real conviction.
    The British government (party) is at present member of a marginal outfit in the European Parliament; we have Guy Verhofstadt, Lousewies van der Laan and Graham Watson with excellent links to the Dutch and Belgian government leaders; the Benelux always was a dynamo in the EEC and EU.
    In the present age of the ICT Revolution, emancipation of the individual (a Liberal achievement: David Steel’s abortion Law with around 6 seats in the Commons), we LibDems especially must resist the nostalgia to “one size fits all” government by just one party. How much has France profited from one-party government? or Spain? Wake up and smell the fairtrade coffee!

  • I joined the LibDems over the weekend, a convert from the Tories (voting – not member) – looking for a party with a heart to affect change.

    The libdems have paid for being in coalition, no doubt! But have they paid for joining the tories in coalition in the first place or did they pay for other reasons… e.g. blatant promise braking on tuition fees? (anyone done any genuine research into this?)

    I really like from the post above…

    “Three things we should do now:

    Clarify our values
    Find new ways of promoting our values
    Rebuild a core vote”

    But to rule out some biased “Nevers” first, seems like putting the cart before the horse.

    I don’t think a party should base it’s values on current opinion, but I’m wanting to join a party that WANTS to be in government again, and not content to being on the sidelines. If the libdems go left of the labour party then they may well get some votes back, but I’d hazard a guess that more voters left the libdems for the conservatives at the election than for labour.

    Obviously I’m new so take everything I say with a pinch of salt and I’m probably wrong on everything… but I really care about the good that libdems did in the last 5 years, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater?

  • RC/TCO elections serve as a public verdict on governments. It’s not negativity to point out the Liberal Democrats were judged harshly on their role in one.

    You might think you were right, you may even be justified in thinking that the outcomes are better than they could have been were you not in government, but that’s not why people voted for you in 2010 and didn’t vote for you in 2015. This wasn’t the usual decline you get in vote share after being in power, the slow drop off in Labour support from 2001 that ultimately resulted in their 2010 defeat. This was a catastrophic and dramatic desertion of support over a relatively short time period. This was not about tiredness, or the public yearning for change. It was about what you did. Accepting this will be part of your recovery, but if you don’t accept it, and think what you did was right, and you’d do it all over again…

  • markfairclough 11th May '15 - 4:32pm

    totally disagree with David Howarth

  • David Howarth 11th May '15 - 5:18pm

    @Bernard: It was someone from D66 who said ‘to govern is to halve’ – that is, every time they go into government, their vote halves. That might be a price worth paying if you have PR to cushion the fall. We don’t. For us, governing with the Conservatives risks going out of existence completely.
    But I should stress that ‘coalitionism’ was specifically defined in the original article as arguing that coalition is a good thing in itself because it brings stability. I was pointing out that to make that argument is to score an own goal. As the Tories said to our voters, the best way to get stability is to vote Conservative. Liberals are for change, not for stability.

  • David Howarth 11th May '15 - 5:30pm

    @Julian: I am not interested in whether it was right or wrong to go into coalition in 2010. That is in the past. Let it go, The question is, what have we learned from the experience? I would suggest, for example, that we have learned that ‘showing that coalition works’ didn’t help us at all. We have also learned, as you mention, that the electorate doesn’t understand coalition. Unless you can give me some ideas for changing that situation, I would suggest that the lesson to be drawn from that is that the risks for us of going into coalition include the fact that the electorate doesn’t understand coalition.

  • paul barker 11th May '15 - 8:13pm

    Its hard to see how a centre-left Party can avoid pushing Centrism or how a Democratic Party can argue on principle against Coalitions.
    What we can say is that short of some massive crisis on a Greek/Ukrainian scale we wont enter any any Westminster coalitions that we dont dominate. Our obligation to the Voters doesnt extend to letting them mug us twice.

  • Iain Sharpe 11th May '15 - 8:45pm

    A few random thoughts:

    Attitudes can change. In Conor Cruise O’Brien’s memoirs he wrote of the hostility to coalitions in Ireland before the 1973-77 Fine Gael-Labour govt of which he was a member became the first coalition to run its full term and not collapse in recriminations. It then lost heavily in the 1977 election as Fianna Fail made various undeliverable promises. But since then coalition has become the norm with no party after 1977 ever winning a majority. If the Tories end up in this parlt being held to ransom by the DUP after defections or by-election losses, coalition in some form may seem a more attractive option. Of course Ireland has STV which helps the junior coalition party to avoid wipeout.

    The trouble in 2010 was that the possibility of coalition came in perhaps the least propitious circumstances. Lib Dems generally do best when the Tories do badly, largely because of the type of seats that we can win. I always imagined that a balance of power/coalition situation would occur with Labour after a Tory government lost power and we had gained a significant number of seats and had a strong hand to insist on PR. Instead, although our resilience had effectively denied the Tories a majority, we had still lost seats and were not in a position to hold the Tories to ransom on electoral reform. And they are the most anti-electoral reform party. Perhaps if we had lost enough seats in 2010 to allow the Tories to govern alone, Clegg would have outshone Miliband as opposition leader and we would have recovered ground – perhaps now facing the poisoned chalice of balance of power/coalition.

    For me the top lesson is don’t make a pledge if you are not committed to keeping it in all circumstances. People understand a pledge or promise more than they do manifesto commitments. It was clear before the 2010 election that a hung parliament was possible. It was also fairly clear that neither of the other parties would agree to our policy on tuition fees. Either we needed to sign the pledge and be prepared to walk away from coalition talks, or accept that we might have to compromise and so not sign the pledge. Of course it was the coalition not tuition fees per se that led our poll ratings to plummet. And if we had not conceded on tuition fees the Tories might well have hammered us in an autumn 2010 election. But in the end the broken pledge denied us a hearing from the electorate.

  • Paul Barker:
    No and yes. We can avoid “pushing centrism” but I doubt we can avoid having centrism thrust upon us. Obviously we have to push Liberalism, which in a very different sense would espouse the opposite of centrism Nonetheless the media will lazily portray us as the ‘in between’ party, but we do not have to provide an extra push.

    The coalition issue has dramatically become a lot more difficult. Although as supporters of PR and pluralism, we advocate coalition government , the price of coalition has gone up enormously and that of coalition with Tories even further.

    Actually our big problem will be the media who, if they acknowledge us at all, will ignore our prescriptions for policy, but harp on endlessly about with whom we would negotiate and with whom work in government while giving our policies short shrift.

  • David Howarth “We have also learned, as you mention, that the electorate doesn’t understand coalition. ”

    You are simply wrong. The electorate understands Coalition. They also recognise when a Coalition is done badly, as was the case with Clegg et al. Coalition does not mean that you end up resembling your Coalition partners so much that ‘there’s not a fag paper between us” as one of them said.

  • Martin “Nonetheless the media will lazily portray us as the ‘in between’ party, ”

    Well to be fair, the LD campaign slogan was ” Look right, look left then cross ” ie the LDs are the party “in-between” the other two parties. You can’t really blame the media for being lazy when this was the message from the Lib Dems themselves!

  • @CB welcome to the party; you exactly the sort of new member we need

  • @ g
    “This was a catastrophic and dramatic desertion of support over a relatively short time period. … It was about what you did.”

    There is some truth in this. We lost about two-thirds of our vote. About a fifth seems to have voted Conservative and about a fifth seems to have voted Labour. We have to accept that most of our voters didn’t either like or know what we achieved in government and hadn’t seen us as the party of opportunity (as the Conservatives are sometimes seen) and were not impressed by our campaign messages.

  • This article, and David’s responses to the comments, really frighten me, actually. Arguing that the only pay we can have coalition with is one that is closer to us in values is basically arguing that there is no party we can go into coalition with, ever, and we stay in permanent opposition till some distant future when we get a majority, because there IS no party close to us in values.

    Yes, the tories are awful. But Labour detest democracy and are massively authoritarian. They’re the opposite of the values in our NAME. Just because they have the image of being a bit nicer to the poor (an image which is not matched by what they actually say they are going to do, I’d hasten to add) does not make them our natural bedfellows.

  • Fiona White 12th May '15 - 8:00am

    There is a difference between going into a coalition when the situation is right. In 2010 I think it was the right thing to do but to run a general election on the basis that we would like to do it again, please, is not the right option. Equally, there is a difference between centralism and equidistance. The latter means that we move our position every time the two bigger parties shift theirs. We are a party build on liberal social democratic principles. We need to go back to those core values and promote radical liberalism. We need to recognise the aspirations of the middle class and promote ambition for those who are in lower socio-economic groups. We need to promote the policy of a good school in every community so that parents don’t feel that they have to move house to get into the “best school”. We need to recognise that not every student wants to go to university and make sure that there are good alternatives so that they can achieve their ambitions. I could go on but I think you get the gyst. The important thing is that we need to stop being a party of men in grey suits and get out there with our strong message and campaign. Oh, and don’t forget the dog poo and broken pavements. They are important in people’s day to day lives.

  • Lauren Salerno 12th May '15 - 10:27am

    I never joined the SDP and would never be part of a Social democrat party; I’m not interested in being part of a protest party either; to quote the bible faith without works is dead and I’m not prepared to die

    We need to rediscover core values but not lurch between left right and centre – both Labour and Tories have done this in my lifetime and been hammered for it, we don’t have the depth to recover from such internicene struggles

  • David Howarth 12th May '15 - 10:58am

    @Jennie: I agree with about Labour – which is why I (and many others, including Conrad Russell and Ed Davey) spent so much time in the later 90s trying to stop Paddy coalescing (and ultimately, as we later realised, merging) us with Labour. The problem is as you state it. A party of values has to win in order to govern. There are no short cuts.

    But ‘win’ doesn’t necessarily mean achieving an overall majority. It means having enough seats that its values shine through the decisions of the government. 57 wasn’t enough. 72 wasn’t enough in 1931, especially split three ways. How many is enough? That depends on the details of the situation, but whatever it is, we might not get there for a while.

    In the meantime, however, we can still aim to affect public policy without taking ministerial jobs. The key to that is strengthening parliament against the executive, something we have long campaigned for.

  • Nigel Quinton 12th May '15 - 12:30pm

    (Not for the first time) What Matthew Huntbach said.

    As time moves on I am sure our achievements in government, and there were many, will be recognised, indeed I think the membership surge is evidence that they are already, But the damage done to our party’s resources up and down the country has been terrible. Rebuilding is going to be hard indeed, So I don’t believe there is any merit in kicking endlessly over the traces of what went wrong over the past five years, But we do need to learn from the mistakes, and rediscover that being a Party of Protest is not the same as being just a Protest Vote, and that in Coalition there is still room for protest. Being in Coalition with the Tories means it is an absolute necessity!

    So I don’t agree with David that we should rule out Coalition with anyone, even the Tories. But we need an idea of how we could behave in coalition (which is the only way we will get into government in the next decade or two) if we are successful in turning things around. As for turning things around, I am with David – we need to campaign, campaign, campaign, at every level, and with perhaps a greater degree of consistency than we have allowed in the past, focussing not just on popular local anti-thisorthat campaigns, but what is really central to our beliefs – and thankyou Kathz for reminding us where those are written down 🙂

  • Malcolm Todd 12th May '15 - 1:39pm

    +1 to everything Matthew Huntbach said at 1.12 yesterday. Including the fact that it’s not going into coalition with the Conservatives that’s wrong, it’s how you handle the process and explain the reasons.

    We need to learn the lessons of the last five years, but not indulge ourselves in blame games and refighting the last leadership election, the coalition agreement or the last two general elections. (There’ll be enough of our opponents doing that.) That’s all over. Learn, rebuild, do better.

    Oh. I thought I was still deliberating on whether to rejoin the party. It looks like possibly I’ve decided already.

  • @Malcolm I’m very pleased you’re rejoining – we need clear liberal voices like yours. I’m sure your local party will welcome your assistance – just don’t make a rod for your own back 😉

  • SIMON BANKS 12th May '15 - 4:36pm

    A couple of points by RC. Surely “pushing centrism” isn’t too obscure. It’s going on about us holding the centre ground as if somehow this was right in itself and as if this was a key characteristic of the party.

    As for what happens when people decide to ignore values and vote for interests, I’m not convinced this is what happened. The Tories managed to scare people that a Labour minority government dependent on the SNP would be weak, chaotic and unable to resist unreasonable demands from the SNP. I don’t see that people who bought that line were ignoring values, especially if they cared about the whole country suffering from weak government or about one part of it getting an unfair advantage. The UKIP vote wasn’t mainly based on interests either: I’ve met many UKIP voters but only one who even thought someone close to her had suffered from policies UKIP would end (she believed, with no evidence, that her daughter had been beaten to a job by an immigrant). UKIP’s appeal is based on fear and on twisted idealism. Like the Tory right, they do have values – illiberal ones.

    If the Liberal Democrats don’t stand on values, why should I and other activists bother to work hard for the party?

    So what will happen if we stood on values and most of the electorate really did ignore values? We’d get more than eight seats because our core vote wouldn’t crumble the way it did on May 7th. The softness of our vote is down to us having confused people about what we stand for. The British Election Survey shows clearly that there is a large liberal-leftish segment of the electorate which the Labour Party cannot entirely conquer because of its own dictatorial and anti-diversity strands and its ambiguity on green issues. In 2001 and 2005 a lot of those people voted for us. In 2010 we lost most of them – and yes, some of them did go to the Tories. When they see what the Tories are really like they may reconsider.

    Oh, and I agree with Alisdair. While like leaders from David Steel to Ming Campbell I think we have more in common – at a policy level at least – with Labour than the Tories, permanently ruling out deals with one of the larger parties unilaterally weakens our hand in negotiations.

  • @Peter Bancroft: “I’d be interested to hear someone make the argument as to why a coalition with Labour is ok but one with the Conservatives is not. I suspect that it will reveal some hidden political misconceptions and put some doubt into that part of David’s conclusion. Obviously not everyone will agree, but it seems clear that it’s partly the pre-2010 “Labour lite” positioning which caused a lot of the feeling of betrayal in the first place.”

    Now there’s an Orange Booker if I ever heard one… Project Clegg, has been an utter failure hasn’t it Mr Bancroft? You made a deal to impose treble tuition fees and the bedroom tax but not a word about legalising cannabis eh 😉 If it walks like a Tory…

    You want a reason? Well the Lib Dems, at least since the 1980’s anyway, have been both social democrats and social liberals. It would certainly be true to say that the Labour Party in power were not liberals (Blunkett and Blair actively made the liberal left the parties enemy) but nevertheless the Lib Dems were a social democratic party (although admittedly not one of the of the statist social democratic ones like you have in Sweden, but a centre left party none-the-less).

    Pre-2010 the party wasn’t Labour-Lite, it was ‘social-democratic-proper’ (and socially liberal). More importantly so were 3/4 of it’s voters. Classic liberalism probably does have more in common with the Conservatives than Labour, but that isn’t what the party was, the party was a merger of the Liberals and the SDP. The party was still liberal and social democrats (regardless of any name change). Like I said it had been this way since the 1980’s and during the Blair years it it simply remained so.

    So this is why has being part of a right-wing coalition has fractured your voter base in away that a coalition with the Labour Party probably wouldn’t have. Get it now?

    In 2010 the party won 23% of the vote. In 2015, lets round it up to 8%. If you apply the standard swing of reducing your vote in each area by 15 points you’d have done better than you actually did. However if you reduced the Lib Dem vote in each area by 2/3rds it would have meant every seat lost. The former is just a swing, the latter a total collapse in the voter based, the Lib Dems were far more like the latter. It had been coming for years… Due to to a deal with the Tories.

    As for coalitions, have you never thought the Lib Dems should just go for an out-right win? The SNP came from 3rd to winning in Scotland, they did this by giving people something to believe in, even if a small majority don’t believe in it. They didn’t do it by telling people that the reason people should vote for them is because it’s a two horse race and they probably hate the other guys more (that won’t work for a party that has actually been in government anyway).

  • “politics should not just be about winning over voters”

    In a democratic state, that’s exactly what politics is about. The voters are an important and necessary check on high-minded “conviction” leading to “right decisions” that actually hurt said voters. When the voters rebuff you — particularly in so clear and loud a way as they did on 7 May — it is time to reëxamine your convictions and ask how right your “right decisions” were.

  • @Peter Bancroft “but it seems clear that it’s partly the pre-2010 “Labour lite” positioning which caused a lot of the feeling of betrayal in the first place”.

    It was also the liberal & social-democratic positioning (or “Labour lite” as you call it) that lead to the party winning 62 under that social democrat Charles K.

  • Jane Ann Liston 12th May '15 - 9:13pm

    Lizzy, I think you are right.

    Also, as an earlier poster mentioned, we lost seats in 2010, from the 62 +1 we had won under Charles, as Mr Wallace rightly notes, so our negotiating hand was weakened.

    However, that was 5 years ago.

    My extremely simplistic summary of Liberal-Democrtacy, for what it’s worth is: freedom of choice for the individual, but without letting the weak go to the wall.

  • RC,
    “On the contrary, very quickly on a whole range of issues, we will find that we were right and that the Tories are doing their best to ruin things in a whole load of areas, from environmental policy to human rights. ”

    An interesting argument, but even if it is true, all the coalition delivered was conservative slightly light for five years, followed by a conservative majority government. The conservatives made very little advance in their vote share this election. What really happened is that the moderating force of the liberal party was completely destroyed. If you think this is terrible, it is also a result of the coalition.

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