Offering “heart and spine” – should we be mentioning the “c” word in the election campaign?


As an experiment, comments for this post will be moderated and confined to new and infrequent commenters on this site. “Infrequent” is defined as having posted less than five comments in the last month. We have 40 posts a week where our frequent commenters have more than enough space to express their views. This post is reserved for new and not-so-frequent commenters.

We carried Nick Clegg’s Monday press conference speech in full. It was a very well-written and compelling narrative.

He said that the 2015 election will be about:

Who is best placed to finish the (recovery) job and do so fairly?

But he was equally scathing about the possibility of Labour or Conservative majority governments:

The biggest threat to our economy comes from Labour and the Conservatives, both of whom are reverting to type as the election approaches.
So don’t fall for it. Labour and Tory majorities would be a massive risk to our economy and our public services.

He also warned against the various coalition alternatives:

Just imagine a Labour minority government propped up by the SNP or a Tory minority propped up by UKIP?
Or either party constantly having to go on bended knee to a rag tag mob of nationalists, unionists, Greens and Respect MPs to beg for votes. It would be mayhem as everyone scrambles around for a bargain like the first day of the January sales.

He then positioned the Liberal Democrats as a vital part of a coalition government in the future:

Because coalition – the ability to compromise, to strike the right balance between extremes – is what has helped pilot the country through some of its most testing times over the last five years. It has enabled us to start the work of building a stronger economy and a fairer society, so that everyone has the opportunity to get on in life.

A strong coalition government, with Liberal Democrats anchoring it in the centre ground and not lurching to the extremes of left or right, remains the best way to make sure we finish the job and finish it fairly.

That is why a vote in May for the Liberal Democrats is the only vote for economic security against economic turmoil; for stability against uncertainty; and for the national interest against petty populism.

In a snappy soundbite, Nick said that the Liberal Democrats would “provide heart to the Conservatives and spine to Labour”.

This press conference was quite a milestone. In my memory, it was the first time we have entered an election campaign offering a specific narrative concerning coalition options.

In the past, (correct me if I am wrong) we have tended to stick to the line that we are campaigning for a majority Liberal Democrat government and that the more voters vote for us, the more they will get of our policies.

Nick has made a big decision here, it appears. Instead of placing all our campaigning capital on getting a majority Liberal Democrat government (however likely or unlikely that is), Nick is centering our campaign on aiming for the Liberal Democrats to be in coalition, opening up the obvious questions about what we would trade in negotiations with the various combinations of parties who might be at the table of coalition talks.

This tack carries a number of risks, not least, we have the questions around whether our manifesto is a manifesto for a Liberal Democrat government, or for a coalition and, if it’s for a coalition, then who with, and has the manifesto already discounted potential negotiations that may take place?

Or will the manifesto be for a “full monty” Liberal Democrat government even though our campaign will explicitly acknowledge this won’t happen and persuade voters that we need to be in coalition. Will the pressures of the campaign demand that we effectively start trotting out our draft coalition agreements for coalition with (a) the Tories, (b) the Tories and the Ulster Unionists (b) Labour, (c) Labour and the Nats, (d) Labour, Nats and Greens etc etc ?

Will be caught in a trap of having to constantly evade questions about our red lines in a myriad of potential coalition permutations?

This is a very big change of strategy for the Liberal Democrats, I feel. Sir Humphrey Appleby might remark: “very brave, Deputy Prime Minister”. But perhaps it is realistic and in line with the sort of thoughts that will go through the mind of a voter when they come to vote. Nick certainly has the skills, intellectually and politically, to steer us through these rather uncharted waters.

I tend to conclude that Nick has bowed to the inevitable and is in tune with voters’ minds here.

On the other hand, I have a nagging question in my mind as to whether Nick has painted us into an even tighter corner than we were painted into before.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Sir Humphrey Appleby might remark: “very brave, Deputy Prime Minister”

    Sir Humphrey would never describe a stand as ‘brave’ when there is a three-syllable word that would do just as well.

    (As for Clegg’s plan, it’s a classic appeal to tactical voting: ‘Labour probably aren’t going to win outright, especially if our marginals go Conservative, so you better hold your nose and vote for us in the hopes of stopping the Tories getting a majority.’

    As such it is hardly a departure from classic Liberal Democrat strategy, but simply rolling out on a national scale what they have been doing on a constituency level for decades. All it’s really lacking is a misleading bar chart.)

  • Bill Chapman 7th Jan '15 - 10:38am

    It seems to me that Labour is on target for a small majority on its own. If, however, a coalition is needed, then the LibDems should be considered. Clearly there will be fewer LibDems in the next parliament, so I don’t foresee a LibDem Deputy PM, but there are some junior ministerial posts that LibDems could occupy in any coalition.

  • Paul Griffiths 7th Jan '15 - 10:44am

    First, I’ll add my thanks to the LDV team for this experiment in commenting. A welcome relief.

    2010 was a watershed. Old taboos have been broken. Truths that we have long known can now be spoken plainly. Among these are:

    (1) The possibility of coalition is now a permanent feature of UK general elections.

    (2) For the foreseeable future, Liberal Democrats will not govern except in coalition.

    Our manifesto must reflect these truths. This does not mean that we must sacrifice either our liberalism or our cherished beliefs. There will be “red lines”. But I think it does mean that the bulk of our manifesto must be negotiable, in the limited technical sense of “capable of being the starting point for coalition negotiations”. Crucially, however, it need not anticipate the outcome of those negotiations.

    Unlike some, I see no contradiction between a “liberal values” campaign and “centre-anchoring” campaign. Both are valid and will appeal to different sections of the electorate.

  • Sadie Smith 7th Jan '15 - 11:06am

    Not sure if I qualify and will not grumble if chopped.
    The precise words used matter. For five years we have been talking about coalition. Habit dies hard.
    If the election results are anything like predicted, some form of pewter sharing is likely to be necessary whether or not it includes us. It is also quite likely to be more messy. I would be happier if I felt the objective was the maximum influence, so the maximum of votes. So I would prefer not to set limits to our ambition. Otherwise we make it more difficult to win perfectly winnable seats.
    I am not at all sure how the Party would react to a formal agreement again. Tories have not proved trustworthy and Labour has acted as just political opportunists. The rest of the bunch are really special interest groups. Tough choices but last time we were kept pretty well informed at the beginning. That is an essential job in May.

  • Tom Snowdon 7th Jan '15 - 11:20am

    Unfortunately we are going to have the same team negotiating a potential coalition in May as we had last time. My major gripe wasn’t with coalition itself, it was always obvious that our first step would be holding the balance of power, but with the way in which the politics and business of coalition government was carried out. The relationship with the Conservatives was poorly managed and compromises were made in areas that were against the general wishes of our membership.

    When it comes to our manifesto for next May, it should be a full on Liberal Democrat manifesto as a proposal for what we would do if we won the election. This would illustrate what we stand for in terms of policy and values. Obviously this would be open to negotiation in any coalition discussions. But who in their right mind compromises their preferred outcomes before any negotiations start ? My fear is that we will already compromise our position in the manifesto to anticipate any coalition talks. We need to show what we stand for in May, and not just stand in the middle between the Tories and Labour.

  • Gary Fuller 7th Jan '15 - 12:39pm

    The problem I have is that, despite some pretty significant manifesto wins in Government, the economy doesn’t feel the slightest bit stronger and society doesn’t feel in any small way fairer than in 2010 (to me). If I’m saying that as a Party member, how do we convince the public that a) I’m wrong about where we’re at now and b) we’re capable of delivering even small progress in that direction through a future coalition?

    I get that things like the Pupil Premium will achieve a huge amount in the long run, as will moves on removing the stigma around mental health and improving social care, but I can’t convince myself that the balance of cuts in the public sector, as against increases in taxation of the wealthy, since 2010 has been anything but completely unfair. If I can’t convince myself of that, how do I convince anyone else to vote for us this year?

  • I like the notion of having articles for new or less regular posters, hope to see more on LDV.
    One’s heart does sink a little seeing the same names, often sparring about the same topics.

  • He’s in a bit of a bind, to be honest. No-one really expects the Lib Dems to win an overall majority so the “best” we can hope for is to be part of a coalition. The electorate is not stupid and knows this, so NOT to mention coalition is exactly the sort of ommission that drives people mad.

    However, the best way to couch things is as follows:

    “We’ve written a manifesto that sets out what we would do if we had a majority government. But we recognise that the outcome of the election is in the hands of the people, and the electoral system, and we can’t predict that. Were we to be in a position to form part of a future government, then this manifesto sets out the opening position that we would take in any negotiation.

    But we should point out that ultimately the programme that ends up being negotiated will depend upon the opening positions of any other party or parties that are seeking to form a government, and their relative strengths to each other. In practice that means that much of what we would like to do we will simply not be in a position to deliver, so it is then up to us to fight for those elements that are most important to us and seek to limit the worst excesses of the other parties where we can; much as we have done in the last Parliament.

    This sort of negotiated compromise takes place in every home and business across the country every day, and is the way things are agreed and accomplished in a civilised society. So we are appealing to you to give us as many votes and MPs, and as much influence, as possible in the next government.”

  • Steve Griffiths 7th Jan '15 - 3:11pm

    Nick needs votes at the next General Election, but he also desperately needs ground-troops to fight his campaign. The trouble for him is that it is a ‘buyer’s market’ where supporters are concerned and I do not think that this coalition ‘stall’ he has set out will bring many ‘flocking back to the colours’.

    The nebulous “stronger economy and a fairer society” mantra is clearly now set for this campaign, but it hardly stirs the blood of activists or electors; any party could conceivably use it.

    We are told that he espouses coalitions because of “the ability to compromise, to strike the right balance between extremes” of different political parties. But what is a broad-church political party if not a coalition of ideas? He makes no attempt to strike the right balance or compromise the two main strands of liberal democracy within his own party, because he is a ‘my way or the highway’ type of politician. He has narrowed the party to the economic right and makes not even a nod in the direction of what was once the left of the Lib Dems. A recognition by Nick of the coalition of ideas within his own party might just bring some activists back.

  • Peter Hayes 7th Jan '15 - 5:17pm

    Where I live I saw in 2010 newly registered students queuing to vote. All those votes may well be lost if there are not very well defined red lines for any coalition, it it not sufficient to say talks will be the party with most MPs it MUST be with the the party whose views are most compatible with our membership AND not our leadership.

  • Great idea to limit comments to new and infrequent posters.
    I think it’s the right call to be honest, open and up front about likely coalition. We have spent five years saying that the public should not be afraid of coalition and demonstrating that it can work (albeit at no little cost to the party) and, as others have commented above, the public are not stupid. Paul Griffiths above sums the difference between previous elections and this one well.
    I think there is less to fear than the article suggests about being pushed into ‘pre-negotiating’ a coalition agreement. Firstly, it’s not as if we haven’t faced those questions before. Secondly, I would have thought a robust answer that we want as much of our manifesto implemented as possible and the more votes and MPs we have the more able we will be to deliver is a reasonable starting point.
    I would be wary of red lines – too easy to trip over. But a narrative that says any agreement should contribute to a stronger economy and a fairer society (now where have I heard that before) and that is what we would test the agreement against would, I think, be a sustainable argument.

  • Phil Wainewright 8th Jan '15 - 12:00am

    While it’s realistic to see coalition as the only likely outcome for Liberal Democrats to see any of our manifesto implemented, people still want to know what we stand for. It’s not aspirational enough to offer a moderating influence.
    My personal allegiance to the Liberal Democrats is founded on the party’s commitment to civil liberties, personal freedom, community, pragmatism and self-determination. I’m disappointed that we didn’t assert these principles as strongly as we might have done during our time in government. Now that we are going into a fresh election we should take the opportunity to proclaim our unique values. The electorate respects politicians who know what they stand for. We won’t make any impact if we merely define ourselves against where the other parties stand.

  • I too support the new comments policy, it’s like walking into a room that’s just been spring cleaned as opposed to discovering the remnants of a teenage all night party.

  • My view is that people mistrust coalitions but are more accepting of looser arrangements like confidence and supply agreements.

    People just don’t and won’t forget that the lib dems MPs and lords signed up to a programme of cuts which damaged so many things people may have voted lib dem for.

    By taking this approach, Clegg has tied his personal leadership of the party with it being a party of government. That sets the bar for a libdem success just a tiny bit higher. It then comes down to whether voters trust him.

    The bar isn’t just about sustaining enough MP’s to get elected but also when that happens, for effectively negotiating to being a part of government. Failure to deliver for clegg on this means his future will not be tenable.

    Coalitions involving lib dems can and have worked locally and nationally. However, it shouldn’t be presumed they are automatically superior to a period of parliament being in opposition where new MPs can hone their skills and good MPs can focus on effective campaigning to develop for representations locally, in Europe and finally in the next election.

    Good luck with your experiment btw

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 8th Jan '15 - 9:21am

    The manifesto has to be as detailed as possible as we expect to be in opposition and not in a coalition – those voters who see us as a principled opposition member will appreciate the stand we will take thereafter.

    If called upon to negotiate as a coalition partner, we have a stronger starting-point with our ‘cards on the table’ but have to make clear, in any agreement, what we have had to compromise upon and why we found that those ‘cards’ had to be varied. Unfortunately this will be a more difficult position than in 2010 – after May’s widely expected GE result.

  • Paul Griffiths 8th Jan '15 - 1:15pm


    I would not have commented had “the regulars” not been excluded. I have no desire to have my liberality, loyalty, sincerity, perspicacity or sanity viciously and anonymously disputed.

  • Tom Snowdon 8th Jan '15 - 2:21pm

    @ Pete Dollimore – My concerns have been twofold. The relationship with the Conservatives in government should have been explicitly more arms-length. Instead of giving the impression that we went along with all of the government’s proposals, our leadership should have made it clear to the public where we still disagreed with policy, and where we had to compromise a policy that we would have preferred to implement. I realise that recently we have been trying to differentiate ourselves from the Tories, but in the eyes of many voters it is way too late.

    The leadership needs to take responsibility for the erosion of our distinctive values as perceived by voters.

    My second area of concern has been on policy, especially those areas of policy that were not part of the coalition agreement that the party signed up to. I won’t make a long list of those policies that disconnected with our members, suffice it to say that I’m talking about things like the bedroom tax, re-organisation of the NHS etc.

    On the subject of posting a comment, I think it’s been easier on this topic as the stream of comments has been slower, so there’s more opportunity to post. That’s not a criticism of the “regulars”, as I always enjoy a good read of the comments section.

  • Robert Wootton 8th Jan '15 - 10:42pm

    I have been watching a recording of Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain. About when Lloyd George won a landslide victory for the Liberal Party by promising welfare and eliminating poverty. We have yet to do this.

    Perhaps the LibDems could win a landslide victory by promising to establish an equitable economic system which we do not have at present. And by de criminalising financial prudence which present laws in existence do at present.

  • I also like the chance to comment without there being the usual 15 posts by the most regular posters. It’s both that they divert most threads on to the same hobby horses (often but not exclusively Clegg and co’s alleged failings) and also their confrontational style.

    The thread above is much more interesting and more thoughtful. Personally I agree that the manifesto should be a full plan for majority government. Then if there are coalition negotiations it’s a starting point.

  • in response

    i) you have posted because frequent commentators have been excluded in this experiment, and you would not have posted if they had not been excluded

    I felt encouraged to post because I would not consider myself a “frequent commentator”. Dialogue is about making space for others to contribute alongside you.

    , or ii) whether you would have posted anyway?

    I don’t think I would have posted anyway.

    Your experiment is a really good one. Not sure if its been done in the LDV-members only site. As a former moderator of a forum, I liked to encourage new people to speak up and speak out. This, “I’ve never spoken before and I think..” approach is a good try although you could easily get people using multiple identities.

    The problem about frequent commentators is that they aren’t always quite as polite to each other as you would be to a new person. Some issues are just vexed up into historical issues that have nothing to do with the matter at hand in the article.

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