Opinion: The coalition will now change; the Lib Dems must ensure it does so for the better

When, earlier this year, David Cameron sanctioned the Conservative-dominated No to AV campaign to attack his until then unfailingly loyal deputy, he precipitated the end of coalition phase one. It had not meant to happen so quickly, but the Liberal Democrat reaction – the strategy of differentiation – soon followed.

The prime minister’s actions in Europe last week are a similar turning point. By pandering to the extremes in his party – by acting as Tory leader rather than prime minister, as Paddy Ashdown put it – David Cameron has forced Nick Clegg to once again rethink the Liberal Democrat approach to the coalition.

Yet again, though, David Cameron might in some ways have unwittingly done the deputy prime minister a favour. Differentiation – in its crude form at least – has now been as successful as it was ever going to be. It has halted the downward trajectory of Lib Dem poll ratings and stabilised them somewhere in the low double digits. But the low double digits is still a full ten percentage points less than the party achieved in last year’s general election.

So, what should coalition phase three look like? The answer can be expressed in two words: public negotiation.

Coalition ministers and MPs will continue their day-to-day work of implementing the policies contained in the coalition agreement: reducing the deficit, rebuilding the economy, improving the education system, making the health service more responsive and accountable, cutting taxes for the lowest paid.

But where events have overtaken the coalition agreement – Europe and the economic situation, for instance – the response of the coalition should be to come to agreements in a much more public and transparent way. One party sets out its position, the other party responds with their view. When compromises are arrived at, the public have then seen the opening positions of both sides and can see how the negotiated agreement has been reached. We can all see not just where the government has ended up but where the parties started.

There would be a certain irony to this, of course: David Cameron’s failure in Europe will have forced what has so far been a very British coalition to move towards a much more European model of conducting pluralist government.

Such an approach would benefit both of the coalition parties as well as the country more widely. For the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, a strategy that allows a freer, more open exchange of viewpoints before decisions are taken would act as a pressure valve, releasing some of the tensions that have built up from the suppression of differences between the parties. For the country, it means a government that works better: harmony and competence are not synonymous. In fact, if anything, where this government has gone wrong it has been because it has been too harmonious – too reluctant to critique and debate, even where perfectly valid – rather than too discordant.

For the Liberal Democrats particularly, this strategy also has another upside. The great inherent risk in the differentiation so far attempted is that it simply turns the junior partner into an internal opposition, constantly acting as a brake rather than as part of the engine, to use David Laws’ metaphor. The great benefit of publicly negotiating to reach agreement is that it forces both sides to put forward positive arguments rather than using backroom manoeuvring to block the other side. The risk that the Liberal Democrats simply become an internal opposition would not be fully removed, but it would be substantially reduced.

Of course such a strategy is itself far from risk-free. The obvious potential downside for the two parties is that not only does transparency of this sort expose where a party has been successful in arguing for a particular outcome, it by necessity also highlights where they have failed. Neither party should be too worried about this, though. Voters realise that coalition demands compromise, and the supporters and potential supporters of both parties are in a much better position to judge who was right and who was wrong if they can actually see the cases being made openly by both.

The other main risk is caused by a media and main opposition party which still largely fail to understand coalition politics, evidenced by some of the apocalyptic coverage of the coalition disagreement over Europe. Around the globe, political parties disagree, regularly and openly, and continue to govern together in arrangements of all shapes and sizes. Britain is no different, and it seems the only way for the two governing parties to prove this is to practise it.

It remains in the interests of both the country and the Liberal Democrats for this coalition to succeed through to 2015 – the Fixed-term Parliaments Act still means that is very likely. But the reckless actions of the prime minister last week make another strategic rethink necessary. For the Liberal Democrats there is a clear route to follow which will make the government work better and help us convince voters that our values have not been diluted by the coalition. There are risks involved, for sure, but even Nick Clegg’s detractors can’t say he is one to shy away from taking bold, if risky, action. Now’s the time to do so again.

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  • “Differentiation – in its crude form at least – has now been as successful as it was ever going to be. It has halted the downward trajectory of Lib Dem poll ratings and stabilised them somewhere in the low double digits.”

    That’s just wishful thinking, I’m afraid. If you look at the evidence of the opinion polls, you’ll see that the party’s rating reached its nadir at the end of 2010, and has been remarkably stable for the whole of this year. There’s no evidence at all that there was any kind of change due to a new strategy after May 2011:

    There’s very little these different presentational strategies can achieve while the basic fact of the coalition remains. Not that leaving the coalition would necessarily make things any better. The party has got itself into an appalling position, and the damage has largely been done – and I suspect the consequences are going to last for at least a decade or two.

  • Tony Dawson 15th Dec '11 - 2:04pm

    Public negotiation is a neat phrase for what I have said should have been the position from ‘Day 1’. Then we would not have found ourselves blackmailed into support for ‘government'(sic) measures such as the NHS Bill which were not in the coalition agreement and were distractions which though possibly not as dangerous as Labour made out, were of dubious merit and a waste of time money and effort.

    “David Cameron has forced Nick Clegg to once again rethink the Liberal Democrat approach to the coalition.”

    I think we need to see some solid evidence of this – it could just be wishful thinking. One swallow does not make a summer.

  • Very good article – but would add that we need to pick more careful the subjects we go so public in opposition to. Europe and voting, important as they are to Lib Dems, aren’t our most popular policies.

    Lets argue quietly in the coalition for those – and publicly argue in the way suggested in the areas we are popular – protect the NHS for example – arguing for rising the tax allowance even further and faster

  • LondonLiberal 15th Dec '11 - 2:16pm

    i agree with libby – drawing lines in the sand over having more immigrants and a closer relationship with the EU will ensure we stay in the ‘low double digits’. Better to publicly advocate for lower taxes, more investment in housing and other national infrastructure etc, and keep arguments about supporting immigrants, the Human Rights Act, the EU and PR for more, shall we say, ‘select’ audiences.

  • make another strategic rethink necessary

    Ahem, no, I think you mean the first strategic rethink, not much evidence of a coherant strategy from Clegg et al so far

  • I’ve got a great idea, the Liberal Democrats could argue for policies in their manifesto – greater co-operation on Europe, no tuition fees, proper reform of the electoral system and greater regulation of the financial sector. Let’s face it, the coalitions performance to date on all these issues has been abysmal and maybe, just maybe, the Lib Dems were right all along and should have insisted Cameron compromise, rather than capitulating themselves?

  • Don Lawrence 15th Dec '11 - 3:28pm

    “David Cameron’s failure in Europe will have forced what has so far been a very British coalition to move towards a much more European model of conducting pluralist government.”

    Stick with your delusions. Cameron has us on the end of a string and Nick Clegg dare not do anything that would threaten Cameron. Annihilation in the next election awaits.

  • Simon Bamonte 15th Dec '11 - 5:25pm

    If we are going to fight back and find “our own identity” in the coalition, can we fight the Tories and demand more concessions on their social & economic policies especially? We should fight the NHS bill as neither us nor the Tories had these plans in our manifestos. It is deeply unpopular with public and medical professionals alike. Remember, both parties promised us “no top-down reform of the NHS”, yet that is what’s happening. I’d also love to see us rebel harder on welfare reform and the issue of ATOS, both of which are failing our most vulnerable members of society. Urgent action is needed NOW with regards to unemployment, especially the young. It should now be clear to all that the private sector is not picking up the pieces from public sector losses. At all.

    And with recession predicted by leading economists for 2010, this will all get worse. We simply should not stand by and let the Tories get away with all of this.

    There’s also the issue of tax. It is time to seriously think about raising tax on those with the broadest shoulders: it’s time we really ARE all in this together! Thatcher, a fundamentalist capitalist, held the top rate of tax at 60% for most of the 80s and in the last comparable national crisis, WW2, tax rates were as high as 99%. But in this crisis, if we tax the very rich any more, they will “go elsewhere” supposedly. What kind of people, who are already very wealthy, put greater riches above paying a fair share, in times of crisis, to the nation that allowed them their very success?

    As Chancellor Sir John Simon, originally a Liberal, said of the wartime budget in 1939: “I am confident that we can rely of the great army of taxpayers to carry us with success through this part of the field, just as we rely confidently on the Armed Forces of the Crown in the grim struggle they have to face”.

    It’s time we truly are all in this together. We’ve been battering the poor and middle-class since we came into power. It’s time we stand up for them.

  • Cllr. Nigel Jones 15th Dec '11 - 8:59pm

    The kind of approach suggested by Nick Thornsby is one I have been wanting to see since September 2010. We need to express our views on current issues before the decision is made in Parliament or cabinet, but especially on issues around inequality, green jobs and education.
    We also need to make sure the presentation of policies is positive and done after giving much thought, not in a rush; e.g. it was a huge mistake to announce the abolition of education maintenance allowance before announcing what is to be put in its place; similarly the ceasing of the Schools for the Future building programme, the cuts to benefits before describing a better replacement scheme; the rush for top-down change in the NHS before dealing with the management problems that have become endemic in the NHS. etc.. We are still suffering from these negative announcements, to which the media give much more attention than the subsequent proposals.
    After the dirty campaign by the Tories about AV we should have no hesitation in criticising them on issues where we disagree with them, whether or not we are likely to get what we want in Parliament. I also see nothing to be lost by keeping the Tories and the public guessing as to whether we will remain in the coalition until 2015. We should show there is clear water between us and that we will only put a bridge over it from our side when we think it is right to do so.

    Cllr. Nigel Jones
    Newcastle under Lyme

  • The article states boldy that it’s in the country’s interest for the coalition to survive till 2015 but what is the evidence?

    What impact will the deflationary policies of the coalition have by 2015? How many jobs will be lost will our fragile manufacturing industry survive such policies? In the 80’s Thatcher deflationary onslught produced 3 million unemployed and we never have been close to the dream of full employment since. It seems that we are content to have a huge underclass to drive down wages and pursue the dream of supply side economics.

    What impact will the NHS privatisation have? Will the drive to allow the private sector to skim off the top, have the impact we all fear. Will patient care be based on the cost of everything and the value of nothing?

    Will the 1 million unemployed young people be a forgotten generation? Will they be joined by many more and will the public sector ever recover? Will Our streets continue to be less safe and will our children continue to be poorly served as the cuts bite deeper and deeper?

    Will the city will be protected no matter what the impact on the rest of the economy?

    The future is the Orange Book, and will it only be a future for those who are’nt already millionaires as the rest of us make the massive hole blown in the public finances by the economics of greed.

    I used to live in a country that was tolerant caring and valued the concept of working and contributing. This was blown apart in the ’80’s and is what little of that society that is left being targeted by the inheritors of Thatchers mantle?

  • I forgot to mention that with the Tories looking at a poll lead, the chances of Lib Dems having more say in government is getting thinner every hour. Do not think that some right wingers are not already thinking about the implications of these poll figures.

  • LondonLiberal 16th Dec '11 - 2:24pm

    @ Simon Banks

    “Hmm, Londonliberal. Lower taxes and more investment in housing and other national infrastructure? Surely also having cake and eating it.”

    If that was the sum total of what weas being proposed, then yes, it coudl be seen as that. But i quoted those as two examples of priorities we should pursue, not a a complete manifesto. We are, for example, spending money on the pupil premium, and the green investment bank, and trident, while still cutitng taxes for the lowest paid. I would suggest that investment in housing is a far better way of spending money and cutting our deficit than some of our current spending priorities, as you get about £3 back for every £1 spent, you alleviate social problems for those on waiting lists (which also saves money in the longer term), and you create an asset on which you can borrow in future years to finance more investment.

    So, no, it’s not actually having your cake and eating it.

  • David Allen 16th Dec '11 - 3:57pm

    “We need to pick more careful the subjects we go so public in opposition to. Europe and voting, important as they are to Lib Dems, aren’t our most popular policies.”

    Voting, yes I agree. But if we had not gone public on Europe, we would have been ridiculed once again for being spineless toadies. Can we now get a message across which will resonate with the public? Let’s see.

    Lib Dems believe in defending British interests. Cameron has failed to do that because he is an incompetent negotiator. Cameron lectured the Europeans, refused to listen to anything they said, and then faced them with a rash ultimatum. When they said No, Cameron had no idea what to do next. He left an empty chair at the negotiating table, and he left the City of London to the mercy of whatever the Europeans decide to do. Fortunately, the Europeans are trying to rescue him from his own follies through “technical” discussions. Next time, Cameron will have to pay more attention to the Lib Dems and the professionals, and less attention to the blimps on his back-benches.

    Will that do?

  • david thorpe 17th Dec '11 - 2:30pm


    I would love you to find the policy in oru manifesto which says no tuition fees?
    as for the rest of it, we are working towards it or implemneting it daily.

    The negotaiton option wasnt an option from day I, THE FIRST PHASE HAD TO BE TO SHOW STABILITY, THAT WAS the only way to benefit the economy….

  • it’s a start…

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Dec '11 - 12:33pm

    @david thorpe

    Page 33 of the 2010 manifesto: “We will scrap unfair university tuition fees”. Page 39: “We will scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree”

    Now then: you might argue that we only pledged to scrap unfair tuition fees — but that would clearly be sophistry. Anyone would understand the sentence to be a combination of two statements: “tuition fees are unfair and we will scrap them”. If that is not what was meant by the statement, it was dishonestly misleading; if it is what was meant (as everyone I’ve ever spoken to understood it to be) and we were now to reinterpret it retrospectively as meaning something else, then that is dishonest and craven.
    And no, we didn’t pledge to scrap all tuition fees of all sorts – given the restriction in the second sentence to “students taking their first degree”. But that’s clearly what g was referring to, because it’s what’s politically salient, and again, to wilfully interpret it in any other way is utterly pointless, self-serving sophistry.

    Lib Dems stood on a policy of scrapping tuition fees last year. Trying to prove we kind of didn’t won’t make people less angry about the u-turn, and nor should it.

  • If something could be done to end the culture of collective irresponsibility, and to bring differences not only between parties in a coalition government but also within parties (which are themselves only coalitions writ small) fully into the open, with ministers and MPs openly sharing their views, successes, and failures with the public — in short, if the government were really open so that everyone could look in and see what was happening and how decisions were reached — it would be a tremendous boon to British democracy.

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