Opinion: Voters don’t understand coalition government

Reading the flood of negative comments which greet any mention of the Lib Dems in social media or the press, a small number of themes occur over and over again. The “broken promise on tuition fees” is always well represented, and I hope that we have learned the necessary lessons from that one.

Other common complaints, point to a fundamental lack of understanding of what coalition government involves and how it functions. If we don’t confront this directly and forcefully between now and May 2015, we are simply storing up trouble for ourselves in the event of another hung parliament.

The recurring complaints are:

I voted Lib Dem to keep the Tories out, and you let them in; you let me down.

You could (and should) have formed a coalition with labour.

You are nothing more than crypto-Tories, nodding through their policies.

Each of these concludes: “I will never vote Lib Dem again.”

To an extent we have become the victims of the success of our negotiating team in securing the posts of Deputy Prime Minister and the number two job at the Treasury, giving the impression to many that this is a coalition of equals. If we do not behave like whole-hearted Lib Dems delivering our manifesto promises and opposing divisive Tory measures, it is not because we lack the power to do so – the critics say – it is because we lack the desire to. We have sold our collective soul for the taste of power.

The message that we need to get across is that we are the junior partner with only 15% of the seats held by the Conservatives, and this puts a serious constraint on what we can achieve. In this context, we must more effectively communicate that we are punching well above our weight. How many voters know or care that we lost almost one fifth of our parliamentary seats in 2010, and that this too, adversely affects the power we could wield in government?

We need to address the belief that we could have formed a coalition with Labour. Quite apart from the reluctance of Labour to make any real effort in that direction, and the abuse that would rightly have been heaped upon us for propping up a discredited administration, we need to get the message across that the arithmetic simply wouldn’t permit it. Labour and the Lib Dems together would still have been ten seats short of a scant overall majority, and even by trawling the parties of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland we would not have been able to build a comfortable majority.

In practical terms, this is the only British coalition within living memory. People don’t automatically understand the mechanics of coalition. We need to ensure that they acquire that understanding by 2015.

* Ian Hurdley joined the Liberal Party back in the 1960s. Before retiring to Spain he served for fourteen years as a magistrate on a Northern metropolitan bench and continues to take a keen interest in all matters to do with justice

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34 Comments

  • This is a seriously introspective piece which fundamentally misunderstands how (the majority of) voters think.

    The people who (still?) really do not understand the potentials and pitfalls of coalitions are those who entered into this one. They chose to totally ignore the vast resource of thousands of councillors who have been involved in coalitions, who could have advised them, before they dived into their own one.

  • It would be interesting to have an idea of what the level of ‘understanding’ voters have in other countries that are more used to having a coalition Government.

    I’m a big supporter of the idea of coalitions. But if people are never going to ‘get’ it, I can’t help but wonder what’s the poing?

    I felt bad writing the above, I admit that it’s very patronising. Of course there are many people who ‘get it’, but still think the Lib Dems are doing a terrible job!

  • Bill le Breton 16th Aug '13 - 11:37am

    Tony is right. There is now 40 years of experience of Liberal, then Alliance, then Liberal Democrat groups holding the balance of power in both Councils and Parliaments/Assemblies.

    The technical approach to getting the most from this position and minimizing the downside was first compiled in the early eighties by Cllr. Maggie Clay, then General Secretary of the ALC, and rolled out to perhaps over a thousand councillors in over 150 groups.

    The first priority after an election, Maggie concluded, is to get the processes of decision taking right. The Party has to be able to bring its influence to bear on every decision and in public.

    The Leadership, in its haste to use the opportunity to demonstrate that Coalition was *per se* a good thing, feared that early examples of public divisions between the two partners needed to be minimized and kept from public gaze. Fundamental Error Number 1.

    This excluded both the public and the Party from seeing the most important process of joint administrations; the bartering, compromises and linkages between issues (the tit for tat). An open Coalition allows people to see the distinct approach of each partner in every decision – preserving their independence from each other. It also allows the leading Liberal Democrat to involve her party in campaigning activity around the Party’s opening position, which helps in her negotiation with the Conservative Minister.

    Ian, this was indeed compounded by Fundamental Error Number 2: the decision to take ‘offices’ or, in local government terms ‘chairs’, in the administration rather than to negotiate a change in the mechanics of governance, including collective responsibility.

    An alternative was to position a Liberal Democrat MP or Peer (and we had enough of them) in every position in Government with all civil servant briefings and requests for decisions coming to both the Tory minister and the Liberal Democrat representative.

    Liberal Democrats would not have had the trappings of office, but they would have had the information, the input, and the press attention on their opening position, their negotiation, the way decisions were linked.

    We did not use our golden opportunity to bring decision taking in Whitehall into the open: normally the very first objective of Liberal Democrats in position of outright power or influence, the point I tried to make here: https://www.libdemvoice.org/lessons-of-coalition-11-what-do-the-lib-dems-need-to-learn-from-the-first-3-years-35661.html

    That suited the PM and the Civil Service, and those around the Leadership who have always been dismayed by the local government base of the Party.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '13 - 11:44am

    Yes, there is a lot of misunderstanding of this sort. It was always obvious this would happen and that our political opponents would encourage this misunderstanding. Those of us who have been involved in balance of power situations in local government will already have been familiar with this sort of attack.

    That is why it was SO important from the start of the coalition for us to do all we can to reduce the damage that was going to be caused by this inevitable misunderstanding. However, the leadership of our party and their Public Relations advisers did the OPPOSITE. They seemed deliberately to say and do things that would encourage this misunderstanding.

    The coalition was always going to be difficult, because yes it does mean us seeming to agree to much that we are really opposed to, and because it falls far short of our aim of a Liberal Democrat majority government – or if that was not our real aim, the convention of British politics is that general election campaigns should be run as if it is. But by failing to make it clear that the coalition was a poor compromise well short of that aim, and instead making out that it was the fulfilment of our long term aims, the Leader of our party has made our situation when it comes to campaigning for our party far, far, more difficult than it need have been.

  • Voters will most certainly ‘get it’ next time. What they have learned from the Lib Dems, is that a vote passed on to Nick Clegg, will, on a whim of his choosing, be passed on to Cameron or Milliband, within 48 hours of the general election.
    So why would you vote LD, and take the risk, of your LD vote being passed on to a party you do not agree with?

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '13 - 12:17pm


    We have sold our collective soul for the taste of power.

    If the message coming our from our Leader is about how wonderful it is to be “in government”, and how what we have now is the end point of what we were building up to over all the year before, the above WILL be how people interpret it. Yet since May 2010 we have been continually urged to put it this way. This was the central theme of our Leader’s speech to the party conference last year. Those of us who want a more cautious and less self-celebratory attitude towards the coalition have been castigated, accused (in an interview by our Leader in the Independent before last year’s conference) of cowardice, told we are people who lack ambition and are just out to attract “protest votes”, and advised by someone billed as our Leader’s “Director of Strategy” (in an article in the New Statesman last year which our Leader has never repudiated) that if we don’t like it, we should join the Labour Party.

    What was needed was for us to be clear that what we have is a compromise, arising from the way people voted in the general election, and the distortions of the electoral system they back in the referendum in the following year. I have been saying this throughout. Those at the top of our party just don’t seem to be interested in what those of us who are long-term members are saying about how they are so badly mis-handling this situation. It seems we don’t count, and they don’t mind if we drop out of activity or party membership altogether.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '13 - 12:33pm

    John Dunn

    Voters will most certainly ‘get it’ next time. What they have learned from the Lib Dems, is that a vote passed on to Nick Clegg, will, on a whim of his choosing, be passed on to Cameron or Milliband, within 48 hours of the general election

    No, it is not on a “whim of his choosing”. It was the electorate who chose to put many more Conservative MPs in Parliament than Labour MPs, and the lien had already been put that the first choice of coalition partner should be the largest of the other parties. The electorate also chose to back the electoral system whose distortion strengthened the Conservatives, and weakened the Liberal Democrats, making any alternative coalition impossible.

    Your line seems to be that a vote for a candidate of a political party is not for that person to represent you in negotiations to form a government, but should instead be considered a vote just for a government of that party. If that is the case, then you are saying we must only have single party governments. If that is the case, then as the Conservative party won the most votes, you are arguing we should have a purely Conservative government in place now.

  • “Voters don’t understand…”

    A sure-fire way to alienate the voters is to tell them that they haven’t got a proper grasp on the facts. It’s insulting. People who you insult don’t generally start thinking whether there might have been a good reason for the insult. They start thinking about how to pay you back. In this case, the means of doing so is very clear – Never vote for those arrogant beggars again!

    Bill le Breton makes the much more positive point that WE didn’t understand how best to operate in a coalition. Now if we were to have some serious debate around that subject, and we were to come up with some proposals about what we would do different next time (irrespective of the prospective partner) – Then we might get listened to with a bit of respect, for a change. Because we would have shown a touch of the necessary humility, and until we do that, we won’t earn the respect of the voters.

  • Geoffrey Payne 16th Aug '13 - 12:55pm

    I am not sure about whether it is to do with not understanding. If the electorate do not like the policies of the government, then they will not support us.

  • Simon Shaw says:
    “Yours is really rather a silly argument.”
    It’s only silly to those silly enough to think, that the Clegg tail, wags the dog.
    Matthew Huntbach says :
    “It was the electorate who chose to put many more Conservative MPs in Parliament than Labour MPs,”
    You are right in that, there were more Tory MPs voted for, but shock for many LD voters is that they did not expect their votes to become Tory ‘top ups’. And that is a lesson well learned.
    The core point is that LD’s (or rather Clegg), have proved themselves untrustworthy.

  • Simon McGrath 16th Aug '13 - 1:54pm

    @geoffrey Payne “I am not sure about whether it is to do with not understanding. If the electorate do not like the policies of the government, then they will not support us.”
    Wonder if that is true – the policies that Lib Dems have the most trouble with – welfare reform is extremely popular with voters according to polls.

  • I don’t believe I am reading this…

    Whether LD members like it or not, all this was predicted by the people you hounded away, so now you are being just as predictable as usual… the voters don’t understand, we did not get the message across; it’s not our fault…

    Jeez talk about being grown up…
    My Gran had a favourite saying… you made your bed, now you sleep in it…

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '13 - 2:03pm

    Simon Shaw

    As small slip, Matthew, but just to point out that the author of that September 2012 NS article had ceased to be Nick’s Director of Strategy by then.

    Yes, but it was not stated that he had left under bad terms. Nor was it clearly put whether this “Director of Strategy” post was in relation to Mr Clegg’s position as Leader of the Liberal Democrats or his position as Deputy Prime Minister. So anyone who read this story could easily assume that this was the person whose strategy ideas Nick Clegg was following in his leadership of the party.

    If Nick Clegg was not happy with being linked with the opinions expressed in this article, he could very easily have stated that. If someone published an article expressing an opinion with which I disagreed, and the article was headlined with a statement suggesting that person had been a senior adviser to me, I would feel it necessary to clarify the situation in public and disassociate myself with its opinions.

    This was an article in an influential publication just before the Liberal Democrat assembly. Nick Clegg must surely have been fully aware of it. His silence on it DOES indicate consent. And the article was expressing the opinion that real liberalism should mean right-wing economic policy, that the Liberal Democrats as a party should be all about that, and that all those party member who disagree with that should leave the Liberal Democrats and join the Labour Party.

  • @Simon McGrath
    “Wonder if that is true – the policies that Lib Dems have the most trouble with – welfare reform is extremely popular with voters according to polls.”

    You keep trotting this argument out. I;ve some questions for you:

    1. How popular is it and according to which source?
    2. Is it actually popular with the people that voted Lib Dem in 2010?
    3. Is it popular with your target voters. (the ones you’d like to persuade to vote for you who currently vote for other parties)?
    4. If you are thinking about targeting certain voters then how does your (and your party’s??) stance on being tough on welfare differentiate you from all the other parties talking tough on welfare?
    5. Is it right, regardless of popularity? Is it liberal? If not, then would it not be better to persuade the electorate about being less tough on welfare rather than allowing the party policy to be decided by whatever is allegedly popular?

    You seem to be arguing for populism without any reference to liberalism.

  • Tony Dawson 16th Aug '13 - 7:06pm

    “Nor was it clearly put whether this “Director of Strategy” post was in relation to Mr Clegg’s position as Leader of the Liberal Democrats or his position as Deputy Prime Minister”

    If there is a ‘Director of Strategy’ doesn’t that mean there’s meant to be some form of strategy?

  • Once we analyse each other’s points, and set aside debating, it is obvious that a key and fundamental principle for Lib Dems is open discussion, open decision-making and open government. This principle was encapsulated simply in our old focus on pot-holes – showing voters that the smallest issues of the street were open for repair and reported on in the next focus printing. Not great principles but practical ways of showing a listening and reporting system. Many of us believe government itself needs to be open like that, especially when in coalition of some sort.

    There was a moment in time when the leader appeared ready to be open like this – when stating in public that promising to line up with the university students’ campaign was (one of) his great mistakes! He needs to go further with this issue and show how what we have agreed to for university students is working. His letters from the leader indicate to me that he is trying to be open. Unfortunately, the letters are not open because they preach and persuade towards views which are not explained fully. However, he has found at least one way of showing Lib Dems have different principles to Tories – putting a stop to the Tory wishes as they cross red lines. Can we have the red lines made more obvious, repeated over and over, because that constant drip drip of some simple principle is how other parties are making progress and caching the eye of more of our voters. Open on everything is a good start.

  • Peter Watson 17th Aug '13 - 10:25am

    @Simon Shaw
    I think that John Dunn (https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-voters-dont-understand-coalition-government-35765.html#comment-259293) was simply making the point that the intention behind many Lib Dem votes is against one of the other two parties rather than for the Lib Dem party. Consequently, a large number of Lib Dem voters will always be disappointed to see their vote being used to prop up the party they opposed rather than celebrating Lib Dem success.
    Perhaps the Lib Dem role as a “none of the above party” has become redundant (or borrowed by UKIP), and it is probably unfair that left-wing voters see the 2010 result as a betrayal since only one coalition was feasible. But what if there were a genuine choice in 2015? Now that the coalition genie is out of the bottle I think that in the 2015 campaign Lib Dems will have to be more open about what they would want from another coalition (whatever its composition), rather than the more vague comments in 2010 about talking first to whichever party has the largest mandate.

  • peter tyzack 17th Aug '13 - 11:14am

    our campaign strategy should be that we do not define ourselves in relation to any other party, or their perceptions. We are a party of independent thought(albeit that others steal our ideas), and so we are not positioned in the centre ground but ‘out in front’.
    Our aim must be to form the government, and that we are not campaigning to form a coalition after the election. Any interviewer who asks that sort of question should be given a short and pithy answer.
    We have(on the whole) been enormously successful in government, despite our small numbers, and we are now a party of government, independent of big business and vested interests, who want to empower the individual and local community.

  • Tony Dawson 17th Aug '13 - 2:16pm

    @peter tyzak:

    “We have(on the whole) been enormously successful in government”

    Does this ‘success’ encompass alienating more than half the people who voted for us and roughly half the members of the Party who worked to elect the reduced number of MPs who got in in 2010 after a pretty poor campaign?

    No, surely, the ‘success’ must be measured in the removal of all those hundreds of pesky hardworking Lib Dem councillors for the sin of being aligned to certain Parliamentarians. 🙁

  • “Does this ‘success’ encompass alienating more than half the people who voted for us and roughly half the members of the Party who worked to elect the reduced number of MPs who got in in 2010 after a pretty poor campaign?”

    That’s no problem. Once you get into the mindset of ‘the voters don’t understand’, alienating the voters becomes just another sign that everything is going swimmingly …

  • Ian Hurdley identifies three recurring complaints. He doesn’t seem to address the first one. In a Lib Dem-Con marginal the old squeeze message to Labour voters is not going to work. The answer should be to change the squeeze message and identify those Labour policies we support (or in this case supported in government) and state that by voting for us you got (get) these things.

    I accept his position on forming a coalition with Labour, but not his position of saying we are weak. We have a veto. Therefore there is no reason why we had to support policies that we were against. Tuition fees is the classic example with NHS reform a close second. We could have stopped the tuition fee reforms by abstaining as we said we would do in the coalition agreement. We could have amended the agreement to get something of ours implemented in exchange for our broken pledge but we didn’t. To say that the reforms are a good thing I don’t think is persuasive.

    As Bill le Breton points out we failed to explain to the public what “bartering, compromises and linkages” were made to reach agreement. If they were based on liberal principles (and I don’t know if they were) we could argue that we aren’t “crypto-Tories, nodding through their policies” but we were putting our principles to work in government.

    As Matthew Huntbach points out another complaint is that Nick Clegg says that being in government is a good in itself. This of course can be partially addressed by ceasing to say it and having a new message that the reason for being in government is to make the UK a more liberal country and we have achieved this by ….

    I have no confidence that Nick Clegg and the leadership understand these issues and will successfully address them by the time of the next general election and so we will have less MPs in 2015 than in 2010 continuing the decline under Nick Clegg’s leadership.

  • I’m still uncertain about which aspect of coalition government resulted in the mass abstention of LD MPs on the Jeremy Hunt vote. I’d greatly appreciate it if someone could explain it to me in simple terms.

  • Do not know why we are bothering to discuss this. We will struggle to reach double figure MPs next time, so no one is going to be interested in us.
    I despair over why the party ignores what is becoming pretty obvious. there will be significant number of Conservative gains from Lib Dems next time, and expecting gains the other way round is becoming fanciful.
    I am a strong supporter of the coalition BUT as a selfish Liberal Democrat interested in our survival and future feel we must end it within the next 3 months or so. The coalition was formed primarily to give stable government and get the economy onto a proper footing. That has happened so lets leave now with some honour, it means a change of leadership as w ell so that a fresh image can then be presented.

  • Perhaps the voters understand coalition government perfectly well; they just don’t like it?

  • This is a rather despairing article that could have been written any time in the last 3 years.

    I agree most with Peter Tyzack – “our campaign strategy should be that we do not define ourselves in relation to any other party, or their perceptions”

    We’re onto a hiding to nothing if we position ourselves as the anti-Tories or anti-Labour party. We need to keep banging on about the liberal direction we’ve taken the government, reiterate the things we’ve managed to gain in coalition, what we’ve managed to stop the Tories doing and how Labour would wreck the economy again.

  • So therefore Julian, we are presumably to infer that your position is – that we could renew the coalition with the Tories in 2015, but we could not conceivably make a coalition with Labour?

  • Waking up and reading this sort of thing is going on makes me despair that the party has any influence whatsoever over in government

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-23750289

  • Simon Banks 30th Aug '13 - 5:43pm

    On the whole I find voters do understand we have some power but not vast amounts. They give us some credit for reining in the Tories (unless, of course, they’d prefer Toryism blue in tooth and claw) but criticise things we have shared responsibility for, such as benefits restrictions and tuition fees. Where I think we fail most is that these voters do not find a consistent narrative of what’s distinctive about us in government, so the old confusion about what we stand for is increased.

    It can’t be absolutely true that local campaigners’ experience and lessons from no overall control on local councils were completely ignored in 2010, since Andrew Stunell, who was a stalwart of ALC, was on the negotiating team. However, failing to learn from local experience is far too common at the centre of the party today. Having warned for some time that UKIP was a danger and not just a useful nuisance and that we should start studying how to fight them, I was delighted to see the party had put out a briefing on this. When I read it, though, I found useful stuff from opinion polls and rather patronising if sound advice not to try to imitate UKIP, but no mention whatsoever of lessons learnt by local campaigners who’d encountered UKIP – not even from Eastleigh, but not from any local contests either. So I can only conclude it did not occur to the author that ALDC or local campaigners at all would have something useful to say on the subject. Unbelievable. No, unfortunately, believable.

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