Opinion: It’s tricky isn’t it, this coalition business?

Try and be too Liberal and our coalition partners do all they can to put a spanner in the works. They surely feel much the same about us. Try and find a happy compromise and you end up with everyone hating you.

And the danger is you sink into a sea of obfuscation and intransigence and get absolutely nowhere. Or worse, you go native – or at least let the world think that you have. Then you end up hating yourself.

Is this ringing any bells?

Which is why we probably need more people inside the party who have experience of making coalition work, understand the inherent dangers, can get things done and keep both our reputation and soul intact.

I suspect that this is one of the reasons why the appointment of Ryan Coetzee as the new strategic advisor to Nick Clegg is a shrewd choice.

Like many members I have heard many good things about Ryan since he joined us. But until I read this article, it hadn’t really clicked that we now have someone at Nick’s elbow with on the ground experience of making coalition government work. And even taken a party in to government and growing its share of the vote. Heavens above.

I was never a fan of the ‘not a cigarette paper between us’ approach to government. So I hope Ryan’s experience of making coalitions work will show us how we can not only deliver Lib Dem policies in government but keep our own character and philosophy not just alive, but actively enhanced.

Being in coalition has been much more difficult and painful than I think many of us realized. I’m banking that Ryan can help make us more effective in government – and also remove some of the tarnish that being in government has left on our reputation.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “Being in coalition has been much more difficult and painful than I think many of us realized”. It’s a lot more painful for people like me who voted LIbDem to have to watch your party change; if I had known in 2010 how the LIbDems were to embrace NHS privatisation (especially Clegg and Shirley Williams) you wouldn’t have had my vote. I suspect there are millions like me. I fear it is far too late for Mr Coetzee to save you.

  • Richard Church 17th Sep '12 - 7:52pm

    “Being in coalition has been much more difficult and painful than I think many of us realized.”
    Speak for yourself, it’s been just as difficult and painful as I (and I suspect many Lib Dems) thought it would be. We have campaigned long enough against the Tories to know how fundamentally we disagree with them, but there are times when you still have to work with your opponents as anyone who believes in pluralism, or who has been a member of a no-overall-control council knows. None of the other options in 2010 would have been any less painful.

  • Most of my contacts consider themselves to be lefties – Facebook revolutionaries perhaps. They lay into the Lib Dems repeatedly and about as constructively as the average set of comments after a Guardian Comment is free post.

    Mostly I ignore it, but more than once I’ve used the argument (deep breath) “Anybody who voted Li b Dem and has three brain cells to rub together knew that we believed in coalition, that the numbers worked with the Tories but not with Labour, that Labour were discredited and that we would have been working with the pointless Gordon Brown at least to begin with. Letting the Tories go into government on their own would have been abdication of responsibility and confidence and supply would have been worse, because they would have been safer to do things we couldn’t influence. So… coalition can be rubbish, but the alternatives would be worse.”

  • Let’s make it a bit less tricky by having Nick state publicly that this will not happen during the course of this coalition..


  • Peter Watson 17th Sep '12 - 10:36pm

    I don’t think it is sensible to be a Lib Dem without accepting the need to make coalition work, but for me the fundamental mistake our leaders have made in their approach is well-described by John Kampfner in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/16/clegg-cabinet-red-meat-opportunity), particularly when he writes, “Clegg’s problem is this: how can you do business with another team, while making clear that you do not share most of their values or aspirations? This lies at the heart of coalition politics, which continental Europeans have had far more experience of dealing with. What has been found to work is when, publicly but politely, one leader says: “We advocated A, they advocated B, but we agreed to settle on C.” All surveys in Europe suggest that the public respects an open airing and settling of differences. Yet the Lib Dem leader consistently dismisses this notion.”

  • I think Ryan’s input is excellent but British politics , the British electoral system is new to him as indeed coalition is new to Westminster. There have always been though people with successful and lengthy coalition experience in the devolved administrations and the larger councils who can/could provide useful insight. There has been a reluctance for Westminster to look down and a preference to look overseas. The reality though is that its as hard to extrapolate lesson from Birmingham or Wales as South Africa or Denmark but still worth the attempt as some of the strategic errors at Westminster have been in the view of some in the wider party schoolboy stuff . Even MPs can learn.

  • Ed Wilson. “Anybody who voted Li b Dem and has three brain cells to rub together knew that we believed in coalition……………”. And this LibDem attitude towards voters, illustrated by your remarks, makes things ten times worse for your Party. The LibDems, by trying to defend their behaviour in government (especially Clegg) come pretty close to insulting the electorate for not knowing, in advance, that the LibDems and Tories were bound to get together after the general election. Your line appears to be that we, as voters, are a bit ‘thick’ or naive and should have known better. This attitude will not endear you to many voters.

  • Yes, we do need people who understand how to make coalitions work and we need people who can explain to the population how they work – clearly at the moment, most people are totally ignorant on this. Oddly, as a country, we have plenty of experience of it: we have been running local councils on this basis very successfully for many years. I speak as a former City Councillor in Chester, where for many years we worked successfully with Labour. Apparently most of the general public have been unable to make the link. We would do well to remind them and the Lib Dems nationally wouold do well to ask some of the many experienced Lib Dems who have been leaders on such councils, for ideas on the way forward.

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Sep '12 - 3:46pm

    LIbDems were to embrace NHS privatisation

    This did not happen and will not happen – it’s a fantasy of the media. The NHS bill explicitly prohibited privatisation.

    The LibDems, by trying to defend their behaviour in government (especially Clegg) come pretty close to insulting the electorate for not knowing, in advance, that the LibDems and Tories were bound to get together after the general election.

    Not in the slightest – the ones being directly and explicitly insulted here are the media, who have conveniently forgotten all of the things which were said in the run up to the 2010 election and are now pretending that the LD party has changed its position. Such claims are lies, made by writers who know that they are lies, and who don’t care because it gets eyeballs on adverts regardless of whether it’s true.

  • To all LibDems on this site. The following is not a “lie” concocted by the media. “Serco has been selected as the preferred bidder to provide a range of community health services to 600,000 patients in Suffolk.” Those of us who lived through the Thatcher years would describe this as (a) Privatisation; and (b) The Tip of The Iceberg. Thank you LIbDems, but don’t expect too many votes to come your way at the next General Election.

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Sep '12 - 11:38pm

    “Serco has been selected as the preferred bidder to provide a range of community health services to 600,000 patients in Suffolk.” Those of us who lived through the Thatcher years would describe this as (a) Privatisation; and (b) The Tip of The Iceberg.

    Pure nonsense. The creation of another contract for health service provision is:

    (a) not privatisation, which means the sale of government assets

    (b) not unusual, because the NHS has been providing many services in this manner since the day of its creation

    (c) nothing to do with Thatcher, every UK government has been providing new services in this manner, including all the Labour ones

    How about GPs? Do you like those? Think that they’re a good idea? They are exactly this sort of private industry contract, and they always have been. Do you know what “community health services” are? They’re the sort of things you might go to your GP for.

    It is a lie that this is privatisation, or that this is new.

  • Over time the “tendering out to Private Health Care Providers” will accelerate rapidly across the country; The LibDem-Tory inspired profit motive will become the norm; The standard of care in the NHS will fall; NHS workers who are employed by private companies will have fewer benefits and rights, and thus will feel little sympathy for the service they provide………..etc. etc. We have seen this all happen before in the ‘eighties’.If the LIbDems (in the form of Shirley Williams and Clegg) have convinced themselves that “It is a lie that this is privatisation” that is up to them. But the voters think otherwise, hence your 8—10% in the polls. At the next general election we, the voters, will deliver our verdict as to whether the NHS is being “privatised” or not. After talking to many many voters, I know what that verdict will be. Are you ready for it?

  • Well, I asked if the LibDem on this site are ready for the voters’ verdict at the next General Election. So far no response. I am not surprised. In my experience voters are a lot more canny that politicians believe. Back when the Tories introduced the Health and Social Care Bill Mr Clegg was so impressed that he wanted the Bill passed in its entirety – as pure Toryism. Someone, presumably, reminded him and the rest of you LibDems that the voters might not like the Bill, bearing in mind that all voters were promised by all political parties that there would be “no top-down reorganisation of the NHS” before the last election. But the Bill became an Act, with Clegg and Shirley Williams managing to keep much “commercialism” in the it. (On this site I have see homage paid, re. the NHS, to Sir William Beveridge and, dare I say, Aneurin Bevan; one wonders what those two gentlemen would have made of the Mr Lanley’s Bill and the LibDems support for it). The (forgotten?) voters know only two well that the duty of a private company is first to its shareholders, in law and in practise. Patients are and will be subservient to company profits. People know this – and they don’t like it; I meet many people in day-to-day life, the words “cuts” and “privatise” are becoming common currency, I know only too well that “public service ethos”standards can fall woefully short in the NHS, but in my judgement voters still prefer, massively, a public-staffed health service to a commercial contractor. I look forward to finding out what the voters think at the next election. I believe many minds are already made up.

  • Not sure what you mean, Dave (are you really big, by the way?)
    Do you mean do w e agree with you what the verdict will actually be? I must say, I am inclined to. But equally you can see other views on here, eg Chris Rennard’s, which is that it rather depends what we do, both locally and nationally. I am not sure why you want or need a reaction from us all? You can easily read all the other comments, many of which have a bearing on 2015 (or whenever).

  • The policy contortions that the LibDems have been through in the Coalition are plain for all to see, but on this site there is, it seems to me, very little recognition of this. For example, if we cosider the “NHS Act”; very few contributors have said in plain English what to me (and probably to the majority of voters) is blindingly obvious, thus I have not seen the following, unless it is from an ex-LibDem member or a member about to resign:

    “……..lets face it, as a political Party we screwed up with the NHS, we promised no big reoginisation, so we gave people a huge reoganistation; before the election, Lansley was almost Public Enemy no. 1 for us, after the election we wanted his Bill to go through unchanged and he became, for us, a reasonable guy; before the election we respected the health professionals’ opinions (BMA, the Royal Colleges, nursing etc) and we wanted what they wanted for the NHS, after the election we wanted the NHS to have what the Tory Party wanted – and we suddenly saw the health professionals as just luddite union members………..”. And so on.

    I used to be a member of the Labour Party, we had too much sensely dissent, BUT if that party had changed what it stood for as much as the LIbDems have, all hell would have broken loose. That would have been uncomfortable for the Party – but it would also have been honest. I voted LIbDem at the last election.

  • ………Actually the word is “reorganisation” x 2. Apologies.

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