Opinion: Equidistance is as important now as it ever was in opposition

Liberals, I put it to you that we are neither wannabe conservatives nor right wing Labourites. We are distinct as Liberal Democrats and need to start making this clear.

The small ‘c’, conservatives who fought for a no vote in the referendum show, at heart, narrow party interest drives activists in both Labour and Conservative parties. As long as they remain tribal, with every motivation checked against what is best for party, it will prove fatal if we continue to seek pluralism in a world where pluralism is derided and to ignore the self preservation of our own party and values.

Instead we should develop steel, self dependence and if necessary a taste for ruthlessness.

Our contribution to government has not merely been to reign in the Tories. The stamp of Liberalism is present throughout coalition policy – be it ending child detention or ID cards, raising the income tax allowance, funding disadvantaged kids in early years education through a pupil premium or checking Tory instincts by stopping a student visa cap or demanding a pause and reflection on NHS reform – but these have too often been quiet victories sought and obtained in private behind closed ministerial doors.

What we have failed to do is imprint clearly and in simple terms in the public imagination that these are Liberal Democrat achievements and without us in government they would not be happening.

By adopting the Iain Duncan Smith rules of engagement – our quiet wins have not had a public airing. Pursuing a strategy of owning all aspects of the coalition has left us open to the charge that we agree whole heartedly with the Tories, we do not.

We must change tact and counter by being frank in public about where we disagree and loudly trumpet, when consensus has been reached, the Liberal mark on coalition policy.

Conservative supporters and voters can clearly see what they are getting out of government. Liberal Democrat supporters and voters must also see what they are getting out of it – or else we face a terminal reverse

We must be independent. Those who lust after a deal with Labour ignore the raw hatred they have of us for not being like them – those who celebrate the deal with the Tories misread an accident of arithmetic for some sort of affinity or shared value. We offer up a fresh perspective on politics from the creaking red, blue kaleidoscope. We owe it to ourselves and our supporters to be independent in spirit and proud of publicising our achievements.

When Conservative head bangers tell us to shut up we must ignore them. When Labour sing the siren song that we should join them in opposition for opposition sake, we must similarly tell them where to jog on. Our contribution must be positive and constructive, listening to, standing up and working for people on the issues that matter, public services, health and tax.

Lib Dem Ministers must not be afraid to discuss in public where we disagree with policy in formulation. We must not leave room to think that coalition policy is conservative led or dominated. Instead we must be frank, public and honest in explaining our differences to voters and how this has led to a fusion of nuanced policy which can satisfy Conservatives and Liberals alike. If the only voice is seen to be that of a single entity Tory led government then those who supported and voted for us will continue to feel betrayed.

We need to be seen as independent arbitrators, arguing for policy which we can point to as fair, balanced and in the best interests of the British People. In 2010, 7 million voters voted for us, not to prop up the Tories or prop up Labour, but to be an independent voice standing up for something different. Either we demonstrate we are doing that, or we let them down.

Martin Shapland is Chair of Liberal Youth

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8 Comments

  • I’m not a LibDem voter but very well said Martin!

  • When will LibDems ever learn? You need to define yourselves by what you are, not what you are not.

    Voters won’t care how far you are from the Conservatives or how far you are from Labour – they only care about what policies that you offer that will make their lives better.

    Voters turned away from the LibDems in this election because the narrative was ‘we are not Conservatives’. Well guess what, the voters want the coalition to do good things for them and fighting an election by being negative turned them away and towards Labour and the Conservatives.

    Your current plan to be position yourselves even further away from the Conservatives, and hence from the coalition that you are part of, shows you why your party is going to get hammered even further in future elections.

    Tell us how you would make the country better, not how you are getting in the way of the Conservatives from making it better.

  • Martin Shapland 10th May '11 - 1:49pm

    Dear @nonny mouse – the post discuss’s how we are doing good things to, as you say, make the country better, but they are not being heard because we have sought to ‘own’ everything the coalition has done, and not made our wins publicily discernable – its not a post about distincing ourselves from the Tories per se, but being Independent.

  • “The stamp of Liberalism is present throughout coalition policy – be it ending child detention or ID cards, raising the income tax allowance, funding disadvantaged kids in early years education through a pupil premium or checking Tory instincts by stopping a student visa cap or demanding a pause and reflection on NHS reform ”

    One of these (ID cards) was a Tory manifesto commitment.
    Another (Pupil Premium) was a Tory manifesto commitment and what we’ve got is probably nearer to theres than ours as it isn’t new money into education.
    Yet another (income tax allowances) was described by David Cameron as “a great idea but I just don’t see how you pay for it” in the debates.
    A pause and reflection on NHS reform might not be needed if we were implementing the proposals agreed in the coalition agreement.

    And we haven’t ended child detention (which I never thought was doable) just made it very very very much more humane (and involving Barnados in running them), very short term and a step of last resort.

  • As a disabled person who is seeing support for genuinely disabled people removed (and facing the loss of DLA, which will force me into losing my job), an unpopular NHS restructuring, local libraries being cut, decent public sector workers losing their jobs & my children refusing to go to uni now because they’re terrified of debt, I see nothing from the LDs. You are and have done nothing for people like me.

    Nearly everything you are doing is actually *hurting* people like me. This government is even more removed from lower-income people than New Labour was. Once again the working-class backbone of this country is being ignored in favour of the middle-class and those with money.

    We hear your message, as I keep saying. We know what you’ve “accomplished” in government. We just don’t like it.

  • The small ‘c’, conservatives who fought for a no vote in the referendum show, at heart, narrow party interest drives activists in both Labour and Conservative parties. As long as they remain tribal, with every motivation checked against what is best for party…

    Oh dear here we go again… anybody but anybody who voted no is tribal, looking at only for whats best for them, is a known activist, supports the BNP, supports the communists blah blah ya ya etc etc

    As long as you keep putting the boot into the electorate for making its mind up and deciding AV just wasn’t for them you are never going to learn and deserve nothing.

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