Opinion: Lib Dems must prove coalitions work

So what next for the Lib Dems? The next general election and probably many more will be fought using the flawed and unfair first past the post system. We can vent some steam and complain about the poorly executed Yes campaign. Or look like sore losers and blame Cameron and the No campaign’s underhand tactics. But the fact is electoral reform is not on the cards any time soon.

The challenge for the Liberal Democrats is now prove to the country that coalition government works. Our party needs to provide the country with strong, stable government as it works to tackle the huge challenges the country faces. There are those who argue that Lib Dems need to assert themselves more and open up differences between us and the Tories. But infighting and Huhne-style cabinet tantrums make Government look weak and without purpose. Liberal Democrats need to convince people that politicians talking to one another, having measured debate and reaching consenus really is a better style of Government.

And the hope must be that by convincing people that coalition government works, we can end once and for all the age-old mantra that “a Lib Dem vote is a wasted vote”. People need to be able to vote Lib Dem and be confident that it will make a difference. While working on last year’s General ELection tour I remember an awkward encounter in one of the northern university towns. Nick Clegg did his standard stump speech, urging students to vote for what they believed in. But then an astute undergraduate asked why the local Liberal Democrats were distributing leaflets telling people that the “Tories can’t win here”. Let’s now draw a line under such cynical campaigning. It’s bad for democracy and treats people as fools. No vote is a a wasted vote. We need to convince people that every vote can count and end the “two horse race” style of campaigning. This coalition presents us with an opportunity to explain to people that their vote really can make a difference. That it can affect the style of Government and that politicians of different parties are able to come together and provide quality government.

There are of course those who think we should withdraw from the coalition. Or that we should have a change of leadership. Either action would be disastrous. How pathetic would we look if we opted out of power now? How would we define our party as one that is serious party and hungry for power. And a leadership election would be nasal gazing at its worst. There are real challenges that the country needs to overcome and we need to be seen to be working to address them, not having some internal debate.

Yes, it’s a hard sell. And it may mean new slogans on our leaflets. But it’s the Liberal Democrats’ only option.

Sam Cannicott is a former media and policy adviser to the Liberal Democrats 2008-10

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “Yes, it’s a hard sell.”

    Agreed. And as a former media and policy advisor would you advise that the best person to front such a sell is someone who is despised and distrusted by a huge swathe of the supporters we have lost and has made no inroads into the support of the other parties?

  • @Fran

    I broadly agree – however one factor in our local results is that tactical squeeze messages completely failed to make an impact – even in wards where Labour did nothing their vote doubled.

  • “Or that we should have a change of leadership. Either action would be disastrous.”

    IIRC the respective parties showed a recovery after the leadership elections of Major/Major in 95, Blair/Brown in 07 and IDS/Howard in 03.

  • “And a leadership election would be nasal gazing at its worst.”

    Shome mishtake shurely?

  • The reality is coalitions dont work under first past the post ( and even if they do the smaller party will be crushed at the end) Under first past the post the two main parties know they can get absolute power and will do all they can to get it.They dont have the mindset which says we are always going to have to take into opinion the views of other parties.

    This sums up the total niavity of Nick Clegg,. Danny Alexander and Co ( and to be fair the membership in post election madness) in thinking they could buck the FPTP system.Unfortunately its going to be a slow and sad anihilation for us unless we accept the magnitude of the cock up we have strategically made.Certainly at some point Clegg will have to fall on his sword and we need a leader like Tim Farron who can be portrayed as an ‘outsider’ and a fresh start (ie not part oif the government or the triumvirate of current politico class leaders)…….

    However I doubt this will happen we will inevitably adopt the bunker mentality hoping that there will be a miracle and continue with our dwindling band of activists to the very end! ie 2015 or when Cameron decides to kill us off

  • Drop ‘two-horse race’ leaflets? You must be joking. I’m sure nobody likes them, but the fact remains they’re an essential part of any campaign run under FPTP and we’d be suicidal to stop using them.

    There’s a big difference between the charge that there’s no point voting Lib Dem because our MPs will never make any difference and the charge that there’s no point voting Lib Dem (or Conservative or Labour) in a particular seat because it’s a marginal between party X and party Y. The first point is the one we can answer by proving that coalitions can work. The second point has nothing to do with coalitions and will remain valid as long as we keep the current voting system.

  • Sam we saw councils like North Norfolk because the Labour vote climbed having been pulverised last year. One of the clear conclusions of this election is more squeeze not less.

    The public can’t object to the continuation of ‘bar chart culture’ that much given they voted for fptp in such large numbers on Thursday.

  • paul barker 9th May '11 - 7:53pm

    Agree 90% with the article, my only disagreement being on the chances for Electoral Reform.
    On Cleggs popularity, he gets between 24 & 30% approval in the various Polls, thats an awful lot more than the 16% projected Vote share we got on Thursday. Clegg is not the problem.

    I have never got this curious faith in the use of dodgy bar-charts, no-one beleives them. Our best hope is to get as many people as possible voting for what they want.

  • the spin was basically: “Well, these LDs wanted the NHS reforms – Clegg’s signature is on the paper, don’t you know! we’re just pragmatic Conservatives, they’re the ideological ones… – but, if they want to u-turn & wobble because they’ve poll trouble, well, we’ll just have to put up with that – no backbone, these chaps”.

    I don’t know about spin. Isn’t it 100% true that Clegg, Burstow and Co agreed to the Lansley plan of their own free will? (It wasn’t in the coalition agreement; there was no pressure on them to do so.) And then they went round saying they backed it and telling us how wonderful it was. And now they are reneguing on their agreement purely because they see it as a way of doing something about their unpopularity.

    Of course the membership has always been concerned about these plans, and with very good reason. But as far as the leadership goes, it’s the same old process of spin, deception and completely unprincipled policy gyrations that we’ve been seeing for years now. How can anyone take Clegg seriously when he continually behaves like this?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 9th May '11 - 10:59pm

    Yes of course coalitions can work – and they do work in the rest of the world outside national politics all the time and they also work within political parties, but what Clegg and co have patently failed to do is to observe the ground rules to make this coalition work. Yes you should agree on the the things that you agree upon – but you also have to be honest about the areas where you disagree and agree a basic strategy for handling thinks in that area going forward – and I’m afraid Clegg failed on this big time – look at tuition fees, the health service, where cuts should fall (and others yet to be revealed e.g nuclear power and Lords reform) and these were fudged in the original agreement. There was also the area of general macroeconomic mamagement of the economy – where Clegg secretly agreed with the Tories position before the election – while the parties official position was then more Keynesian and nearer to that of the Labour Party.

    Clegg also made a big mistake in not pushing for Libdem control of certain ministries as is common model fopr coalitions elsewhere – and so allows some common endeavour in smaller teams – and instead allowed the Tories to in effect to exercise the dominant influence in every department.

    There is also the issue of the democratic defict with regard to how the coalition would work being explained to the electorate beforehand -and this is an area where all parties were deficient, but the LibDems more so since coalition was their only realistic option for power.

    Not only don’t I like Clegg’s politics – it is becoming increasing clear to me that he just isn’t very competent and is now at a level way above his pay grade. If you need further evidence just look at his incompetent management and involvement in the Yes to AV campaign, which has in effect put electoral reform off the agenda for the next 20 years.

  • Toryboysnevergrowup:

    You can’t blame Clegg for the ‘Yes’ campaign’s failure. They kept him at arm’s length, and he was the only person during the whole campaign who clearly stated (on BBC Breakfast) that you didn’t have to rank every candidate under AV (a critical omission from the Yes literature, making people think they had to rate the BNP).

  • Old Codger Chris 10th May '11 - 8:53am

    Excellent piece by Sam Cannicott.

    There’s no logical reason why a coalition elected under FPTP should fail, nor why one elected under PR should succeed – except that coalitions are so rare in this country that May 2010 was uncharted territory for everyone.

    I’m delighted at the suggestion that the Lib Dems must ditch the “Tories (or Labour) Can’t Win Here” campaigns. There is truth in the charge that Lib Dems face both ways. In my area it’s always been “Labour Can’t Win Here”. That looks pretty stupid now we’re in coalition and surely goes some way to explaining why Conservative councillors have held their seats – and gained more at Lib Dem expense.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 10th May '11 - 9:40am


    I think you need to think at a higher strategic level as to why the Yes campaign failed. At the tactical length – even arms length was not far enough away.

  • It is generally accepted that people do not vote for Coalitions in this country, (except in 1918, 1931 and 1935) so even if people believed that this coalition government worked there is no reason to believe they would want to see another one soon. The experience of 1918, 1931 and 1935 seem to be that if parties fight an election in alliance then they can get people to vote for a coalition government. I don’t think we believe we should fight the next election with an electoral pact with the Conservatives and commit both parties to continuing the Coalition Government.

    Don’t we believe that political parties should set out their manifestos and once people have voted the parties should see if they can work together to form a coalition? Don’t we believe consensus politics can work? Maybe we don’t because we are very happy to form majority administrations to run councils, or this that just a price of the FPTP system used for local elections.

    How we can convince the electorate that consensus politics is a good thing? Should we try to form coalitions even where we have a majority? If people saw consensus politics working locally would they like to see it nationally?

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