Missing the civility of coalition

The perceptive-as-ever Rafael Behr makes a good, but subtle, point in his latest Guardian column. Many of the mistakes that the government is now making, Behr argues, are a function of the majority one-party rule that eluded David Cameron in his first term in No 10:

So how is that working out? Unshackled from coalition, Cameron and George Osborne are now at liberty to find extra billions of budget savings from the benefits bill. Except in so doing, they managed to provoke conscientious rebellion on the Tory benches over tax credits, and drive Iain Duncan Smith into self-certified compassionate exile from the cabinet.

Spared the impediment of Cleggery, Downing Street can roll out the next phase of health service modernisation, starting with a “truly seven-day NHS” as advertised in the Conservative manifesto. Except that it has blundered into a war of attrition with junior doctors over weekend working that will burn through any reserves of public confidence in Tory handling of health matters long before it yields a dividend in more flexible surgery hours.

With the tedious tag-along party expelled from Whitehall, the government can finish its schools revolution, compelling stragglers and naysayers who still lurk under local authority governance to embrace their brave new future in chains of academies. Except the rank and file are not alight with revolutionary fervour. Conservative councillors and MPs are in revolt; whips say a bill that enforces non-voluntary academisation would be mauled in parliament. Nicky Morgan insists the plan will go ahead, but in the emollient tones of a minister in tactical retreat.

Thus freed from the moderating influence of the Lib Dems, the Tories are free to lay in to perceived opponents across the public sector, whilst those across the political left inflate perceived sleights in a ugly symbiosis of mutual negativity:

The audit of minor Cleggite achievements is pretty niche politics these days. The Lib Dems were handed no gratitude by voters last May, and precious little is in the post now. One way to see that fate is as a just penalty for collaboration with the wicked Tories. That judgment flows from a presumption that Cameron, Osborne, Hunt, Morgan and the rest are hellbent on destruction of the public realm because they are ideologically hostile to the idea of properly funded, state-run services. Their so-called reforms are presented as asset-stripping, with a barely hidden agenda of handing schools and hospitals over to corporate interests. That radicalised account of Tory motives, broadly endorsed by the Labour leadership,has helped ramp up the junior doctors’ dispute from a generic haggle over pay and conditions into a beacon of wider resistance against the government.

The radicalisation is reciprocal. Ministers become blind to reasonable grievance among public sector workers. They see trade unions as reactionary guardians of a mediocre and financially unsustainable status quo, at best. At worst they are presumed to be hotbeds of saboteur militancy, incapable of constructive dialogue. Each side serves up rhetorical excesses that can be seized upon by the other side to prolong a cycle of intransigence.

There is no happy outcome from polarisation of this kind. It guarantees that the question of what works best for the people who use public services is submerged beneath the question of who has won in a battle between ministers and public servants. It kills reasoned argument. What data there is on the allegedly lethal effects of weekend NHS understaffing, or on the relative performance of academies and local authority schools, has already been tortured into confessing support for both sides of the argument. The politics of confrontation is grinding compromise into dust.

Moderation is a difficult rallying cry, as we found last May, but I suspect rather more than 8% of the public would welcome a dose of it now:

It was the prospect of constructive engagement across partisan lines that once made coalition seem exotic and, to a non-tribal audience, appealing. This is not meant as some floral tribute at the Lib Dems’ electoral graveside. They swapped the moral high ground of opposition for the mucky trenches of power, traded away too much of what they had stood for, and were buried.

So it goes. Yet they did, briefly, represent an ethos of civilised collaboration. Coalition required a modicum of generosity in imagining that political rivals might have a point, or that their motives might not be entirely vicious, or even just that there were individuals in other parties with whom constructive business could be done. It didn’t last. That spirit expired last summer. Cameron won his majority; Labour chose a path of no compromise. Two tribes in perpetual antagonism. That is what matters, apparently. What a shame it doesn’t work.

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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28 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 28th Apr '16 - 9:35am

    All this is pretty straightforward but of course useless if as a consequence of the way this process within Coalition is kept internal and not externalised, and in which that externalisation is not communicated through campaigning by LIberal Democrats in their communities; the Party is destroyed within one Parliament.

    What I think Nick has failed to quote is this from Behr’s piece:

    “Oh, for a division of disciplined Lib Dems! They could be relied on to march through the aye lobby, given a policy concession or two, a social mobility taskforce, a ride in a ministerial car, a bunch of grapes.”

    In Coalition the small part y must not be ‘disciplined’, reliable supporters of the larger party – they must remain insurgents.

    This is the essence of what was communicated to the electorate. It is the ‘bunch of grapes’ message – it is the ‘bums on ministerial cars’ image.

    This is why those who led and directed the Party from May 2010 to May 2015 were grossly incompetent and negligent.

    The Party would survived – may even have prospered in Coalition if the Coalition had been transaction with the bargaining played out openly with the linkages clear and with the whole party involved in building public support and involvement for ‘our solutions’ for our ‘opening positions’.

    All the public saw, all the Party outside the clique saw was a bunch or two of grapes and a Ministerial Jag transporting Lib Dems in suits from office to office.

  • …………”That judgment flows from a presumption that Cameron, Osborne, Hunt, Morgan and the rest are hellbent on destruction of the public realm because they are ideologically hostile to the idea of properly funded, state-run services. Their so-called reforms are presented as asset-stripping, with a barely hidden agenda of handing schools and hospitals over to corporate interests”………………..

    Hardly a ‘presumption’…Tory policies from the new attacks on council owned homes to intransigence over new JD contracts confirm that, under her heirs, Thatcher’s ideology is not just alive, but thriving…

  • Tony Greaves 28th Apr '16 - 11:18am

    Three points to note. Behr is an extreme Blairite so his comments (often interesting) should always be read in that context. And so he talks of “modernisation” of the health service with no apparent irony.

    Second, it’s not just one-party rule that is the problem. It is that the Tories are angry, bitter and vengeful. All the pent-up feelings form the Coalition. They are hell bent on shifting the balance of power and terms of engagement across the political system and public sector.

    Third – what a difference it might have made if all the LD Ministers from Clegg down had refused to use ministerial cars and walked/gone on the bus/underground/train. And insisted their civil servants did the same when travelling with them.

    Tony

  • Tony Greaves 28th Apr '16 - 11:19am

    Or even just driven themselves in ordinary looking cars.

  • Nothing ‘Civil’ about the dreaded Bedroom Tax. Nothing ‘Civil’ about having your party destroyed and humiliated. Awful.

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Apr '16 - 4:58pm

    Sorry to be dismissive but yet another piece proving the “independent” LDV website to be ‘institutionally’ Cleggist, Coalitionist and Classical Liberal-leaning.

    #Don’tMentionWhatCleggismDidToOurParty

  • simon mcgrath 28th Apr '16 - 5:18pm

    @Tony Greaves
    “Third – what a difference it might have made if all the LD Ministers from Clegg down had refused to use ministerial cars and walked/gone on the bus/underground/train. And insisted their civil servants did the same when travelling with them.”
    That is certainly what would have saved us – some pointless gestures. of course their red boxed would still have needed to follow them so it would have saved any money.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Apr '16 - 5:27pm

    The Conservatives are out of touch and look at the state of Labour. No wonder Scotland is clinging to the SNP.

    Tim Farron and the Lib Dems need to step forward big time. The party needs to be the big voice on the issues of the day – not mainly running humanitarian campaigns abroad, albeit worthy, too much focus on it makes us look like we are not ready for governing Britain.

    I was a supporter of the coalition, but it did leave some people out who shouldn’t have been left out when it came to policies. People who get their benefits cut are not obsessing over philosophy – they just want money for food, heating and living essentials.

  • paul barker 28th Apr '16 - 5:50pm

    The big problem with The Past is that you cant do anything about it, except learn lessons. The obvious lesson now from The Coalition is that we should never join another unless we get The PM or our partners are genuinely enthusiastic about Reform. Fine, we can cross that bridge when we come it.
    Right now the task is recovery & slagging each other off will not help that.

  • I don’t think it’s slagging each other off Paul to acknowledge that there are different responses to the Coalition, and that unless those of us who were highly critical of the leadership throughout the coalition years win the argument to get that narrative accepted as history’s verdict then should we ever be in a position to do the same sort of thing again we will probably make the same mistakes that Clegg and his supporters did, and with the same consequences.

  • Peter Watson 28th Apr '16 - 7:31pm

    @paul barker “The obvious lesson now from The Coalition is that we should never join another unless we get The PM”
    May as well pack up now then.
    The problem wasn’t the act of going into coalition. Lib Dems want the sort of electoral system that would deliver more coalition government and as a small party would wield more influence inside a coalition government than outside it.
    But the way Lib Dems presented themselves within that Coalition was a disaster. It is important to demonstrate that lessons have been learnt from it but it is not obvious that the party understands why its support has plummeted or how to rebuild it.

  • paul barker 28th Apr '16 - 8:04pm

    @Peter Watson. If you are going to quote me then give the whole sentence please.
    I can see a situation where we could be in Coalition with a Centrist breakaway from Labour that was genuinely committed to Reform. The problem with The 2010-15 Coalition was that The Tories were only ever making concessions out of neccesity, there was little real common ground with The Tory majority.
    We are facing the possible breakup of both Major Parties, we just dont know whats going to happen.

  • Peter Watson 29th Apr '16 - 7:58am

    @Paul Barker “… or our partners are genuinely enthusiastic about Reform”
    Why make enthusiasm for reform a requirement for potential coalition partners (and what particular reform do you mean)?
    Coalition partners will (hopefully) be committed to whatever is in their manifesto and promises made in the election campaign: the Tories were, Lib Dems less so.
    Other parties may or may not be enthusiastic about reform, but should Lib Dems put aside the chance to influence policies on education, health care, the economy, etc. because they can’t get reform? If “reform” is really more important to Lib Dems than every other policy area then it should be a big part of any negotiations, but should it really be a prerequisite for any coalition?
    There’s nothing inherently wrong with coalition: parties, including Lib Dems, have done it successfully at different levels in different parts of the UK and it is part of the political landscape elsewhere around the world. But surprisingly for a party that should have been better prepared for coalition than its opponents/partners, after 2010 the Lib Dems messed it up.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Apr '16 - 9:25am

    as usual on the subject of our role in the Coalition Bill le Breton nails it. I would only add that in non-Westminster we should also have emphasised the independence of our candidates from the Westminster bubble. We should have taken a “Coalition-Free Zone” and “Nick isn’t on the ballot paper” approach, instead of our “Cult of Clegg” approach to campaigning at the time.

    And I disagree with Tony Greaves on ministerial cars. That particular piece of pointless gesture politics was done by David Cameron.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Apr '16 - 9:35am

    We are currently torn between the normal local elections (first past the post) police and crime commissioners (supplementary votes) and the EU referendum.
    Those campaigning for Remain should listen to the Today Programme interview with John Major, which spells out facts such as the UK wins 90% of the votes in the European Court of Justice. He cites beef as an example, which had been banned because of the BSE crisis. When UK beef was again safe the French government were refusing to allow it to be sold in France. The UK won the argument in the European Court of Justice and then proceeded to enforce it.
    Government ministers are still complaining that the USA is not allowing British beef and lamb, presumably on protectionist grounds.
    The Leave side should write a manifesto for what they want to do that they are prevented and answer the speech by the Labour leader. Maybe they are waiting until after the May elections. Maybe they have internal inconsistencies. Not to do so would be undemocratic.

  • Bill le Breton 29th Apr '16 - 9:39am

    Paul Barker usefully draws our attention to the question of affinity or lack of affinity among Coalition partners or to those with whom interparty cooperation of all kinds is undertaken.

    Paddy Ashdown had an affinity to Tony Blair. Clearly Nick Clegg had an affinity to David Cameron. This was the basis of co-operation between those two pairs of leaders.

    It is possible to argue that each Lib Dem leader got similar amounts of influence and progress over Government policy. I’d argue that we actually had greater impact because of the influence that Paddy, Ming, Bob Maclennan and co had pre and during the 1997 – 2001 Parliament than the Liberal Democrats achieved in the whole of the 2010-15 Parliament. Of course this runs counter to David Laws’ assertion that a day ‘in’ government is better than … etc..

    But the affinity that Clegg had with Cameron and which most of the ‘senior’ Lib Dems in Government office had with their Tory counterparts sat less well with the so called activists in the Party. This reinforced the belief of the Laws-Marshall-Clegg axis that they had achieved what they achieved despite the activists and despite Conference and thus underscored their determination to go it ‘their’ way.

    But their experience and expertise was Westminster (village) politics and not ‘national’ politics. The main players in the Lib Dem government team were either Londoners or MPs and peers long exposed to Westminster (and what used to be called Fleet Street) political culture. I cannot think of any of the SpAds and major kitchen cabinet advisers who were not also ‘London’ and Westminster in this respect. This Westminster village culture supported and encouraged them until the very end of the Parliament and still consoles them.

    What both Blair and Cameron (Brown and Osborne) knew was that elections are won across the nations of the UK, they were happy to see Lib Dems prosper in the Westminster Village whilst they crushed us nationally.

    And this is why @tonyhill is right that ensuring that the Westminster village view is never left unchallenged whenever it raises its head is important if the Party is to have a future. And thank you @Alex McFie

  • Simon Banks 29th Apr '16 - 9:39am

    A minor party in a coalition should be disciplined, but disciplined in the way plenty of local council groups have been – to be tough and realistic in playing their hand to the maximum gain for what they stand for. In government, we weren’t tough enough.

    On the NHS, this majority government is repeating the sort of mistakes caused by being out of touch that characterised the Blair government. Blair had no idea that insisting on GP patients being seen within 48 hours meant that people who wanted, for work reasons say, to book an appointment further ahead were routinely being refused. Now the government bludgeons its way to a fully seven day NHS, something that is not high on the priority list of most NHS users (they’d be happy with six day plus emergencies), while the main complaint they should be hearing is that it’s becoming extremely difficult and time-consuming to get as far as booking a GP appointment, with some surgeries insisting all calls to make appointments are made on a Monday and others running a system which creates a mad rush to get through bunged-up phone lines first thing in the morning to get on the GP’s list to phone back that day, with no provision to go on his/her list for another day, so that people who need to be seen can’t get through and busy people are forced to find a day when they can not only be poised at the phone first thing, but be available for at least half a day to be called back.

    If we were still in coalition, would our leaders be aware of that reality and make sure our coalition partners heard it?

  • Richard Underhill 29th Apr '16 - 9:49am

    The Today Programme was followed by The Reunion about the Maaastricht Treaty. Ken Clarke MP made an important point that the ex-communist countries in Eastern Europe could have relapsed into military dictatorships, but the democracies of the EU saved them “a major triumph”. Other countries that left the Soviet Union did become military dictatorships.

  • Jayne Mansfield 29th Apr '16 - 11:25am

    @ Richard Underhill,
    Maybe so Richard, but it is quite alarming to me that we will find ourselves compromising with former communist countries where there seems to be a residual appalling extremism and racism that does not fit will with western liberal democracy.

  • Jayne Mansfield 29th Apr '16 - 12:12pm

    @ Caractacus,
    Yes, Like Nick Clegg signing the White Paper on NHS reform – signed David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Andrew Lansley.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Apr '16 - 2:25pm

    As usual the same old response from some to a moderate and measured piece.

    Some good points some bad feeling. Can we not agree to disagree.

    I am as strong in my criticism of aspects of the handling and orientation in coalition as any .But why all this about a basic article ?

    Lord Greaves ,

    the Blairite jibe would be acceptable if it were not for your own personal and regular criticism of anyone who has ever had a new or different idea on issues such as the NHS, going back years .You have constantly belittled any party member or in other parties who do not see our health service , or for that matter , schools , as sacred institutions we are not allowed to change or whose systems cannot be reformed.I do not think successive governments have got it right at all , but the acceptance of the status quo by our party leadership over many years , and Labour once upon a time , meant those of us who know that other countries do so much better on outcomes and treatment and survival , and who , in a non ideological way ,bring in the private sector , in partnership, or even competition , within a strong and holistic social market or state ,with no problem and at no cost to those who need it , are examples at best , and no villains , at worst !Always , the same old criticism of so called Blairites , modernisers or orange bookers , if only you understood hoe much some people motivated by concern and compassion , and enthused by personal experience , also want change that will help the most vulnerable people ! I am not on the right of our party , certainly not of the political spectrum , I have seen at first hand that a worship of the state in public services is as bad on every measure as it is to vilify it .Yet you always mock any of us , who see it , say it , or even feel it .

  • David Evans 29th Apr '16 - 4:16pm

    I suppose Nick Thornsby refers to the civility of Nick Clegg saying “Thank you, David” every time David Cameron plunged another knife into the back of him and the Liberal Democrats. Of course that was ‘Groan up government’. 🙁

  • Stephen Hesketh 29th Apr '16 - 6:18pm

    tonyhill 28th Apr ’16 – 6:16pm
    Totally, totally agree Tony

    This is not something new or specific to the Liberal Democrats, it is the old wisdom that those who do not learn from the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.

  • Peter Watson 29th Apr '16 - 7:49pm

    @David Evans “Thank you, David”
    That phrase gave me a sudden Spitting Image flashback.

  • Yeah, your party voted for the Health & Social Care act voluntarily. You can talk about civilising effects all you like, but if you were still in coalition you’d be cheering on every Tory policy and throwing your support behind Jeremy Hunt. Whether that would be for the privilege of getting driven round in ministerial cars or as an actual party viewpoint, the outcome is the same.

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