Opinion: Coalition needs a new approach to collective responsibility

In my recent piece on LDV, a fairly gentle poke at the rebranding of the opposition, two themes emerged from those with opposing views. They can be summed up as ‘Why don’t you lot ever disagree with the Tories’ and ‘get your own house in order first’.

Well you know, I think they have a point.

Even as a strong supporter of the coalition, I’d long disagreed with the ‘not a cigarette paper between us‘ approach to government. We get tarred with policy we don’t agree with, get no credit for Lib Dem inspired legislation, and fail to build up any base for ‘what we believe, and what we did to make it happen’ amongst the electorate ahead of the next general election. Yes we need to be seen as strong partners in government, not warring factions, but this doesn’t mean total acquiescence from both sides to absolutely everything.

And now I think things are changing for the better. Lib Dem voices are cropping up everywhere asking pertinent questions about government policy.

Before Christmas there was talk of a general loosening in the ‘we stand as one on everything’ platform. Last week Malcolm Bruce, in his role as chair of the International Development Committee, was excellent in taking the department to task for spending development money on the Pope’s visit to the UK. Simon Hughes has obviously been taking a long hard look at the abolition of EMA. Sarah Teather campaigns to keep libraries open (even if she was misquoted when calling on her constituents to empty the shelves of books). Tim Farron marches through Grizedale Forest (with MP’s from all sides). Today The Guardian quotes a ComRes poll showing a majority of Lib Dem MP’s oppose many of the NHS reforms. All small signs that blanket approval of everything proposed is not going to happen, and there are many more as well.

Of course, most (not all) of these noises are made by back benchers. I’d like to see something of a relaxing of the principal of collective responsibility to allow members of the government to say more of what they think. In the era of new, grown up politics, when we can have a whole PMQs without it turning into a shouting match, shouldn’t we trust our politicians to all openly debate and disagree? Coalition politics is new to us all, and we need to get used to the idea that we can be in government and still have the odd falling out.

And by doing this we build credibility in our beliefs, are in a better position to take ownership of policies inspired by Liberal Democrat philosophy and we begin to reshape our own position in the eyes of the electorate.

Addendum

Since originally writing this piece of course we’ve seen Lord Oakeshott speaking his mind and leaving the front bench ‘by mutual consent’. While we can debate the ins and outs of should he have gone or not, the very fact that he was willing to say what he thought is another sign of our increasing willingness to let people know where we stand.

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13 Comments

  • Good article. I’ve been saying the same thing about collective responsibility for months.

    It’s daft enough to expect every member of the Cabinet to agree on absolutely everything when they are all in the same party. It’s even more daft when they are in different parties.

    I know Nick Clegg wants to show the Coalition governments can work. But he should also be showing that it is still a government made up of two parties working together. We should treat the British public as being intelligent enough to appreciate that there will be differences of opinion which will be resolved in an open and mature way.

  • Sorry, the die is already cast. Clegg has allowed your party to be taken into bondage. Any outright dissent from LibDem ministers or spokespeople is slapped down. And even LibDem ministers slap down dissenting voices in the wider party, the council leaders and Andrew Stunell being a case in point. Clegg fears that if he allows even the slightest amount of dissent, then the genie will be out of the bottle. It’s up to the party to decide whether they will put up with this ‘joined at the hi’ approach and suffer the five years of diminishing returns. Or to bring the coalition to an end, or engineer an end to it.

  • @jayu: “the die is already cast” – what a disappointing statement.

  • Ed Maxfield 11th Feb '11 - 4:17pm

    The trouble with this approach is that it is essentially driven by short-term thinking. It might feel like the best way to fix the problem of lost support because it makes Lib Dem activists happier but to succeed the party has to seal a new deal with the electorate.

    They, the electorate, pay infinitely less attention to the kinds of policy debate that political activists love to fill late nights on the internet with. They are much more likely to ask (in 2015 when it matters) ‘did the Lib Dems make a success of being in government?’ My feeling is they are much less likely to say ‘yes’ if the party spends the next 4 years trying to highlight all the things the government does that Lib Dem activists feel they ought to disagree with.

    Nick was a bit daft to use the national media to complain about Lib Dem councillors engaging in megaphone diplomacy but the essence of the issue is the need for the party to find a more effective way of getting the voice of the wider party heard in government policy discussions BEFORE decisions are made.

  • David Allen 11th Feb '11 - 5:11pm

    “Last week Malcolm Bruce, in his role as chair of the International Development Committee, was excellent in taking the department to task for spending development money on the Pope’s visit to the UK. Simon Hughes has obviously been taking a long hard look at the abolition of EMA. Sarah Teather campaigns to keep libraries open (even if she was misquoted when calling on her constituents to empty the shelves of books). Tim Farron marches through Grizedale Forest (with MP’s from all sides). Today The Guardian quotes a ComRes poll showing a majority of Lib Dem MP’s oppose many of the NHS reforms.”

    Yes, that’s good to hear, but, on how many of those issues do we suppose that the government will actually change its policy? Because if the answer is virtually none of them, then it will all look like a token dissenting exercise, and we will not gain any public respect for it.

    On just one issue recently, that of control orders, we actually had the sort of hard-fought compromise between the Tories and Lib Dems that we ought to see much more often. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a great deal of publicity on that issue, because Joe and Jo Public tended to think we were all arguing obsessively about small changes in the treatment of a very small number of people. If only we stood up to the Tories in the same way over the issues which really affect Joe and Jo Public’s day-to-day lives, we might not be so widely ridiculed.

    Our Councillors probably added a few percentage points on to our poll rating this week, by showing their independence and determination to fight off the worst of the cuts package. Sadly, Nick almost certainly knocked all those points and more off again, when he used megaphone diplomacy to tell his party that dissent would not be tolerated.

  • Ed Maxfield 11th Feb '11 - 5:13pm

    So developing policies in a way that minimises public disagreement and maximises the number of govt actioms we agree on would be perceived as failure? I am sure if you think about that rationally for a moment it can’t possibly make sense.

    The failure of the Lib Dems in government has not been a failure to generate enough public disagreement with our own policy. It has been a failure of the ministerial team and the wider party to communicate effectively with each other at an early enough stage in the policy development process.

    Surely the success of any branding exercise relies on a proper understanding of your potential customers? The coalition was an incredibly strong brand with the market that matters: voters. We are in danger of trashing that through our own narrow sightedness (both ministers and opponents).

  • Ed Maxfield 11th Feb '11 - 5:15pm

    Sorry I meant disagreement with our own government not policy!

  • David Allen 11th Feb '11 - 5:42pm

    “So developing policies in a way that minimises public disagreement and maximises the number of govt actioms we agree on would be perceived as failure?”

    Well, it all depends.

    If those agreed and implemented actions had included a reasonable number of big decisions, which the public as well as the politicians genuinely think are important, where the Lib Dems had obviously won the internal argument within the coalition – then no, it wouldn’t have been perceived as failure.

    But since the Tories have obviously got their way on just about everything that really matters – the scale of the cuts, their impact on the poorer, the free market in health and education, oh and tuition fees, etcetera – then yes, it is widely perceived as failure.

    (Yes, of course this is a standing invitation for apologists to trot out their usual long list of supposed Lib Dem wins. Please could they take note of the criteria I have put forward – that the “win” has to be a real big issue that matters to real people. So, things like a tiny rise in the tax threshold hardly qualify, and things like scrapping ID cards don’t either, because the Tories were happy to do that without needing any pressure from us.)

  • That big hole Liberal Democrats are standing at the bottom of is all about principles and credibility, before the 2010 GE Liberal Democrats propaganda was that their policy was the right one, the pledges and promises were right for the people.

    Post 2010 GE Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government within a matter of days; Liberal Democrats then had an emergency meeting and voted to change the policy they had asked the electorate to vote for at the 2010 election, within a few days of the election Liberal Democrats had already failed those who voted for the polices you abandoned.
    How can Liberal Democrats expect anyone to believe anything you say?

    Promises and pledges broken and… gone
    Those principles Liberal Democrats proudly portrayed…gone
    Liberal Democrats credibility…gone

    All within a few days, it appears the lust for illusionary power was too much, and I say illusionary because so many Liberal Democrats keep reminding us you only have 57 MPs and have no power…

  • Interesting to see Nick Clegg slapping down the LibDem council leaders who complained about the carnage being inflicted on local government, referring to “megaphone diplomacy”.

    What he overlooks is that, for months now, council leaders have been making reasoned arguments explaining why frontloading the cuts is a bad idea, and expressing concern that the impact will fall disproportionately on the most deprived areas. Our local LibDem council leader went to see Clegg personally.

    The response from government? No changes, no concessions, just Pickles’ usual rhetoric about Chief Executive salaries and merging back-office staff.

    If Clegg and Pickles won’t listen, then using a megaphone is the only alternative!

  • It’s interesting that just in time for the May local elections, Lib Dems are starting to make noises, my question is, where the hell have you been these last eight months?

    “We get tarred with policy we don’t agree with, get no credit for Lib Dem inspired legislation”

    This is unfortunately because the policies you are supporting via the Tories, are damaging to people’s livelihoods, whereas the policies you have worked on getting through, are the sort of policies people take notice of when they’re not worried about paying their bills.

  • Anyone that disagrees with Clegg gets sacked even if they spout party policy – not a cigarette paper more like a blue touch paper IMHO

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