Opinion: Lib Dems must ignore the coalition, and work towards victory in 2015

Over the next few days, Lib Dem loyalists will discover for themselves the frustration and futility of supporting the coalition. They may stand on the sidelines, shouting “Well played!” “Foul!” or “Offside!”. It will make little or no difference. There is no role for party activists.

For according to Vince Cable, the coalition is “just business”. And the business of coalition government is to do unpopular and illiberal things. Nothing here for activists to sell on the doorsteps to voters sympathetic to our usual menu of fairness, redistribution and liberty.

So what are dedicated Lib Dems to do – wait for a return to normal, poll positions miraculously restored? Or find more rewarding and positive business. If so, we must look back to the last great coalition to run Britain.

When that came to an end in 1945, it was the junior partner that went on to win the subsequent general election. Clement Atlee’s Labour party swept the country with a manifesto for revolutionary reform unequalled since the 1906 Liberal government.

This precedent offers both hope and instruction for Liberal Democrats today.  Labour looked ahead, building an election platform for the future, rather than crow about its me-too minor role as part of a successful alliance.

While the reasons for wartime coalition were vastly different from our present shared administration, it is the outcome that matters. And that outcome was based on a party which used its period of non-combative politics to create a programme for society still largely in place 60 years later. We must attempt to do the same.

The role of the Lib Dems over the next four years must be to create a challenging and radical set of policies designed to set the political agenda until the mid- 21st century.

And appeal, chiefly, to an electorate tired of five years of enforced austerity and increasing misery, after not so much a double dip as a triple tumble thanks to George Osborne’s fiscal failings. Franklin Roosevelt learned in 1937/38 not to take your foot off the gas too soon, or the engine of growth will falter and fade.

Whether the coalition wins, loses or draws the battle of solving the debt “crisis”, Britons will rightly demand something more uplifting and challenging. It is our task to provide it. Otherwise the party is doomed. Just saying ‘please sir, we did our bit,’ will be of little use. Electorates are rarely grateful. They look ahead, not behind.

LibsLeft, an embryo new pressure group, believes our task starts now by taking back control of our party. While we wish our ministers well, they are big boys and girls who know the risks they have taken. If they fail, they can’t simply scamper back to take over again.

It is our business to move rapidly on the radical route to a new political revolution, planning policies and strategies for the future.

There is no shortage of people with good ideas in the party or close to it. Jo Grimond set the party thinking in the 1960s and into the ‘70s.  Our radical Liberal policies were then lost to Labour larceny and even Tory theft, just as Labour had earlier nicked the ideas of Keynes and Beveridge.  But in recent years, party machine managers have ensured a dearth of opportunity for new thinking in the party.

It is up to members to decide now whether we do have an independent electoral future, replacing New Labour as the party of the progressive Left, or make the same mistakes as National Liberal leaders in 1945, kept alive only by dodgy deals with the Tories on not contesting certain constituencies.

Jonathan Hunt, sometime Lib Dem parliamentary candidate, is convenor of LibsLeft,  a semi-retired journalist, formerly deputy business editor and diary editor on the Observer; business editor on Today; and a special reports editor on the FT.

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29 Comments

  • matt severn 18th Sep '10 - 3:00pm

    Let Labour have the left- we will stay in the centre, where most voters live

  • Daydreaming again eh? The only hope that you have of repeating Labour’s success in 1945 is if you immediately leave the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact you have entered into and announce it at your forthcoming civil war rehearsal — er …Conference.

  • Mike(The Labour one) 18th Sep '10 - 3:06pm

    An interesting post. You talk about replacing Labour- do you think it will be the case that for the long term there will be only two major positions for parties to play musical chairs over? Do you think coalition politics won’t survive?

  • Nobody thinks the Liberals are in the centre thanks to Nick’s astonishing Thatcherite outbursts against the poor and against the centre left in the Party.

    The Liberals polling and standing with the public is dropping like a stone for a reason.
    And it’s only going to get far, FAR worse with Clegg’s complete conversion to the right and the cuts to come.
    Too many in the public already think Nick is a yellow tory who sold his principles and Party down the river for a cushy Cabinet job. So hoping that “things can only get better” is political suicide and not even close to a coherent strategy.

    Anyone who thinks there is a future for the Liberal Democrats on the right is blissfully unaware that the right will never dump the Conservatives for the Liberals. Ever. Any unhappy voters on the right would rather go to UKIP because they think Cameron is not hard line enough. So any supposed soft right votes are perfectly happy where they are because Nick will never persuade them to abandon the tory party. About all Nick seems capable of doing now is persuading what remaining centre left support he had to abandon his own Party.

  • If the economy stagnates or worse still goes back into recession, do you seriously believe that the voters will reward the LibDems? Before and during the election campaign Clegg made the case against the tories economic masochism eloquently, he is now performed a complete about face and is making the case for masochism badly; why would voters believe a word he says? He is making Tony Blair look honest!!!

    “The biggest challenge for the next government will be sorting out the public finances.There isn’t a serious economist in the world who agrees with the Conservatives that, right in the grip of recession, with two and a half million unemployed, we should pull the rug out from under the economy with immediate spending cuts.”

    Who said that?

  • Talk of future coalitions and pacts when the Party is polling at 12-15% BEFORE the cuts even hit would be funny if it weren’t so desparately sad and clutching at straws. The ‘miserable little reform’ of AV will make little to no difference particularly when the boundary changes are going to gift the tories seats, without having to pass a referendum, mainly at the Liberals expense.

  • carole stirrup 18th Sep '10 - 3:38pm

    I am a “nobody”, I once was a member of the Liberal Party. I am now ashamed, the Party has now let me down. From 14 years old I looked to the Liberals (Joe Grimmond} I even stuck by through Jeremy Thorpe, etc.BUT Nick Clegg has let every true LIBERAL down. I will NEVER, EVER vote Liberal again!!!!!!!

  • Barry George 18th Sep '10 - 4:05pm

    It seems that Liberal Democrat’s here only have a ‘voice’ if they comply with the party line Carole. Any dissent that comes from anywhere left of the centre right Labour party is not welcome. Clegg made that clear in his article in the Independent last night.

    If you joined the party because of being unhappy with the Labour Party and for example the Iraq war then the party was happy to take your money but there is no place in the party for you. Your views do not matter to Clegg anymore. He has found a new home for the party on the right and if Members are unhappy about it then the only option is to do exactly as Clegg wishes and leave the Party.

  • Richard Hill 18th Sep '10 - 4:06pm

    It just seems like another attempt of the loony left to take over the LibDem party to me. Why does everything have to be radical, a lefty buzz word.

    Nick would have a hard time not to be to the right of that attitude. He seems of the sensible centre to me.

    What we want is sensible, solid policies for the next manifesto. Things that take the position of the country at the time of the next election and will be the most realistic course for the next five years. Ideas that are of the centre so that they can include everybody . We need to be aware of how the majority of people feel about things and take that into account. We are not here to force our ideas on people but to listen to them and through reason and logic lead them to a better way of doing things.That is assuming we are right, sometimes we may be wrong but if we go forward with an open mind the gates of the universe might open themselves to us all.

    Never before in the history of aware beings has there been a better time to evolve our understanding.

  • Barry George 18th Sep '10 - 4:12pm

    It just seems like another attempt of the loony left to take over the LibDem party to me

    It just seems like another attempt of the rabid right to take over the LibDem party to me.

    The difference is, for the right, it is working !

  • Richard Hill 18th Sep '10 - 4:16pm

    @ Barry George

    Well, if that is the case and we both stay in the party, argue our points, then between us we might get it right.

  • Barry George 18th Sep '10 - 4:23pm

    @Richard Hill

    I fear the worst but i respect your sentiment. I hope you’re right and that balance can be found. We almost certainly disagree on where on the political spectrum the party currently resides, but if your desire is for a balance between the right and left of the party then I agree with that position.

  • Chris Gilbert 18th Sep '10 - 4:44pm

    Yes, it’s funny how the centrists always claim they are not being left or right wing. Pretending you are centrist is taking an artificial position to appeal to electoral politics and is about as genuine as a chocolate teapot. No one has respect for centrists. It’s like you are arbitrarily balancing polices so that you won’t really be much of anything. So yes, the left of the party is unhappy, and rightly so. Many people joined the Lib Dems because they were left-leaning, and the Labour party had become illiberal and intolerant of disent. Now, the Lib Dems seem to be going the same way.

    The problem is the budget. Some of the other stuff that has been done is good. The budget and the attack on poor people stinks so badly, it could have easily come out of the edifices of Thatcher’s mind.

    Unfortunately, it’s a Tory policy with a Liberal poster boy backing it this time. A nice scapegoat for the state of the nation. All you need to look at is the state of Nick Clegg’s opinion poll figures. At least he’s not as hated as Wayne Rooney yet. David Cameron – doing rather well.

    We won’t win anything from this coalition. Every policy we get through can easily be reversed by another policy later. What we did win though is an extreme loss in our political identity. That came for free.

  • Nick Clegg is determined to join with the Tories permanently. The Lib Dem party is finished. Sorry guys.

  • Your current problems arise from the fact that you have engaged in the political legerdemain of facing both ways for years (Orange Tories in the wealthier counties/ an alternative to Labour in the impoverished areas) and this has only been achieved because you have never achieved parliamentary power and been tested in the realm of political action, i.e. national decision making. Thus the huge divide within your party has not been apparent, even to many of yourselves. A few months in government have exposed the chasm that divides you because you have had to act as a unified force, and the notion that the Liberal Democrats are one party with generally agreed aims and a coherent philosophy has been revealed as a chimera. Now, of course, you can say that all political parties are fragilely cohesive “broad churches” and this is certainly true. However, both Labour and Conservatives have enjoyed alternating power for decades and the experience has been instrumental in making them avoid extremes for the sake of self preservation. Where this has not been the case, both Labour and the Tories have imploded. Because you have been for so long a purely ‘local’ party and have enjoyed the luxury of being one thing in one area and another in the next, even when in power in local government the huge structural flaw in your Janus like nature has not been tested and exposed until now. That is why Clegg is so bad for you as a leader. He is trying to take you in one direction nationally when so many of you want to go in the other direction locally. Hence so many of your local councillors defecting to Labour or expressing hostility to the coalition. You would have been so much better off under a unifier as leader who could have stuck to policies which reflected both sides of your divided character as a party. Your present position reminds me so much of the civil war days in the Labour Party when Dennis Healey and the gang of four were saying that the Labour Party was no place for Militant and the Bennites; and the Militant and the Bennites were saying it was no place for Healey et al. Afterwards, Labour swung to the left and sank without trace under Michael Foot. I think that that is exactly what will happen to you if Clegg succeeds in taking you too far out to the right. What to do then? Use your wonderfully democratic conference to restrain him. For both your own good and for the good of the country.

  • Barry George 18th Sep '10 - 6:27pm

    @ George

    I will respond in a similarly short fashion.

    I did read the article.

    There is no escaping the article.

    Nick Clegg has declared that there is “no future” for the Liberal Democrats as a left-wing alternative to Labour

    Labour is not left wing and hasn’t been for quite some time. They are a centre right party. So in simple terms if you are to the left of the centre right Labour Party then there is “No Future” for you in the Liberal Democrat Party.

    “There were some people, particularly around the height of the Iraq war, who gave up on the Labour Party and turned to the Liberal Democrats”

    Here he is acknowledging that there are people who have a left of centre political view that are members of the party. That’s people like you George !

    You may have been in the party for years George but if your views (any of them) are left of NewLab then he is talking directly to you.

    The Lib Dems never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction

    So if you were foolish enough to part with your money and join the party from a centre left perspective then you are not wanted.

    We will offer no apology for this. The party was of course happy in the past to accept such members but we have moved to the right. In fact we have moved so far to the right that the centre right Labour party looks like a lefty party to us now.

    I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives.

    Yes he understands that the left of the party is not happy, but as he stated above, this party is not for anyone who is left of centre and dissatisfied.

    Such people used to be welcome in the party but they are no longer since we entered this coalition and jumped two spaces to the right.

    He is being polite and tactful but he is telling the left of the party to get lost George.

    You can twist and turn to make it sound like a nothing statement but in fact it is probably the most provocative and aggressive attack on the left of the party for at least a decade.

    He is doing to us what NewLab did to the Labour Party. He is telling the left to go and repositioning the party on the right.

  • Barry George 18th Sep '10 - 6:53pm

    Maybe I should add that I have voted liberal for 30 years. I am not a New Labour reject, never have been. I refuse to stay silent whilst the latest hot shot thinks he can tear the party in half. He looks like he is getting away with it but he won’t. In the long term Clegg will be remembered as the divider and destroyer of the party soul and I have already seen enough to prove that to be the case

  • Why do you think anyone will believe you when you campaign at the next election no matter what policies you adopt? Remember Nick changed his mind and didn’t tell the electorate. People will remember that. I think the biggest obstacle for the LibDems to overcome is the loss of trust . This loss of trust goes far deeper than an abstract loss of trust of politicians in general. This loss of trust has a face behind it i.e. Nick Clegg’s. You will find it very difficult to gain people’s trust if he is still your leader at the next election.

  • I am not a member of the Liberal (or any other) party; I am just ‘Joe Bloggs’ who voted for the Lib Dems at the last election because I was sick to death of the policies, hypocrisy and cant of the main parties. In that I am probably like about 90% of the increase in votes you got in the least election. I am nothing special, neither right or left wing, no axe to grind.
    But what I AM is someone who will never vote Lib Dem again, unless some radical change happens. I did NOT vote Lib Dem to bring the tories in with (as far as I can see so far) only the scant possibility of AV as a reward. The tories must really love you, you are covering for them as they go blithely ahead doing what they wanted to do anyway.
    I foresee an utter collapse in the next election for the Lib Dem vote. You will lose all the votes from people like me, plus you seem to be rejecting half (the ‘left wing’ half) of your core voters. People WILL remember and vote with their feet.
    I am at my wits end now as to who to vote for come another election but I tell you one thing: It won’t be the Lib Dems again – at least the other two parties were honest with their hypocrisy and I never expected anything else from them.,.

  • “Nick Clegg has declared that there is “no future” for the Liberal Democrats as a left-wing alternative to Labour” (The Independent).

    I’m struck by the timing of this comment. In a week’s time, Labour will elect either David or Ed Miliband. If it’s David, then there will be acres of political space to his left, a space into which people like Kennedy, Hughes and Farron would fit very naturally. If it’s Ed, there will be a good deal less space. (That’s not to suggest that Ed Miliband and Charles Kennedy are a pair of political clones, or anything like it, but, they are naturally in competition to attract a similar range of voters.)

    So in a week’s time we will find out whether Clegg’s statement is complete nonsense, or whether he has something of an arguable point.

    That being the case, why did Clegg choose now to make the remark? Is it because he wanted to pressurise his anti-Tory members to pipe down or leave, and he did not want the election of David Miliband to get in his way?

    I’m impressed by Clegg’s timing. And his two-timing.

  • Barry George 19th Sep '10 - 12:59am

    Mark Pack

    I noticed that Bob’s comment has been removed. May I kindly suggest the idea of an open thread once a week for voters to express their concerns and have them addressed. I understand that you wish the comments to be on topic but there is nowhere for people to put forward what they really think. It would be a step forward for democracy on this site and would also help keep the threads on topic. Accept it or not, many of us are angry and upset and this site suppresses dissent by mainly employing coalition friendly articles that make it impossible for anyone to break from the status quo without being accused of going off topic

    Is it wrong to be a Liberal and be upset with the coalition’s ideological crusade ?

    Is it wrong to allow the public to express their anger at what is happening ?

    Stopping dissent by have a major majority of coalition friendly articles is helping to cement the view in the public that we are slimy and dishonest.

    Let the public have their say.. by all mean’s restrict where they can say it but please do not stifle dissent.

    I have no idea why Bob’s comment was removed. He said nothing offensive and there is no correct thread for his opinion so therefore it simply doesn’t count?

    It should count. It should matter to us all what voter’s think. Let them have their say. The party could learn a lot from it.

  • I think the point is that the Liberal Democrat parliamentary seats are primarily Lib.Dem v Conservative in areas in which Labour have very little support. As such Nick Clegg is jettisoning the votes of the left as being of very little relevance to him. Nick Clegg is a political player who is trying to introduce the party to ‘real’ politics. One’s position on this will vary according to why one is in the party, or votes for it, at all. For me there is very little point in real politics if it becomes the focus of effort in and of itself. I therefore welcome the piece above… not just because it is of the left but because it exhibits a concern with the question of essential values.

  • My post was probably far too similar to another post I made on the same subject elsewhere so I’ll accept it as my own fault rather than anything more sinister Barry, but thank you for your concern.

    Though I have no doubt whatsoever that the Observer article will be viewed with horror by many today.
    I won’t go over the article again but I will ask other Liberals this.

    Are you prepared to embrace Cameron and the Conservatives ?
    Because Nick says you must.

    And maybe I’ve got it completely wrong but if Nick had said to his MP’s and the Birmingham Special Conference that signing up to the coalition agreement meant they would have to embrace David Cameron and the tory party, I think he would have been laughed out of the room and told to tear up the agreement as worthless.

    Is it any wonder more than half who voted Liberal Democrat think the Party have sold out ?

    Why is it Nick is so publicly and embarrassingly apologising to Cameron by saying he was wrong to isnult Dave, yet finds no time to apologise to centre leftLiberals and voters for duping them, taking their votes and now telling them to clear off as they are no longer wanted ?

    But no, we should all just celebrate that Nick is in power. Nothing else matters.

    I await Nick inviting every activist at the conference to sample that power by allowing them to spend a day in his nice ministerial office so they can feel as important and satisfied with things as he cleary does.

    And on the subject of marginals, does anyone seriously think the Party can afford to write off every Labour marginal as an trivial irrelevance now ? Might not some of the MP’s and activists who sweated blood to win in such places be aghast at such a view ?

  • jonathan hunt 19th Sep '10 - 8:36am

    Thanks all the positive comments — and the others won’t seektoanswer all he points made.

    I cam home from holiday 10 days ago to find no-one was saying what I wanted to say. Otherwise happy to work with other distinguished groups.

    radical is the name of a party that merged with the Liberal in the 19th century, and many local parties were still called Liberal & Radical until the Lib Dem merger.

    I don’t attribute the same motives to Nick Clegg as some. I belives that given our belief in fair voting and its notmal result of a hung parliament, it would hve been hypocritical not to have gone into some for of alliance.

    But that doesn’thave to apply to the whole party. It didn’t stop Labour in wartime and shoulod not stop us now. We are traditionally a party of the Left (as shorthand
    ) and that’s where our traditioin support lies. Besides whar room is there on the centre right or centre for anything new. . I

  • mike cobley 19th Sep '10 - 9:27am

    Nick Clegg has made his position pretty clear, and anyone who didnt get it should look up Richard Reeves Demos article, ‘The Liberal Republic’ (google search will turn up a pdf), or Reeves’ article for the Guardian in 2008 where he slags of the social liberals whose principles belong to another party. Richard Reeves, it should be noted, is Nick Clegg’s senior advisor.

    As for the left V right argument, just about every major problem that we face as a nation, and as a global community, derive from the authoritarian instincts and rapacious greed of the Right. That is where the serious problems lie, and anyone who whines on about left and right being outdated terms is just not living in the real world. Jonathan, I strongly agree with a lot of what you say but I’ve already made up my mind that I wont sit on my hands for the term of the coalition; I will argue against it with every shred of resolve I can muster. I just cannot stay silent and let Clegg get on with doing to us what Blair did to Labour. As I read somewhere, our interim motto should be – don’t mourn, organise.

  • Bob,

    “Are you prepared to embrace Cameron and the Conservatives ?”

    Never.

    “Because Nick says you must.”

    Nick can go and stuff himself. I didn’t vote for him, and I don’t think he was very old when I joined one of the predecessor parties. Basically, Nick is an overrated upstart.

    If Clegg really thinks Cameron is Wonderman, then he should join the Conservative Party, resign his seat and fight a byelection.

    I guess he will join the Tory Party ultimately, but not before he has wrecked the Liberal Democrats first.

  • mike cobley 19th Sep '10 - 1:06pm

    Sesenco – are you on Facebook? you can check out my rants there, if you are.

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