Tag Archives: The C Word 10 years on

The C Word – 10 years on: What were we thinking?

Ten years ago, in the wake of an election which delivered the first hung Parliament since 1974. the Liberal Democrats entered a coalition with the Conservatives. Nick Clegg became Deputy Prime Minister leading five Lib Dem Cabinet Ministers and 20 or so junior ministers.

That decision has undoubtedly affected our party’s fortunes badly. We won 57 MPs in 2010, and just 8 in the brutal and devastating election 5 years later. In the intervening years, we had lost most of our MSPs, all but 1 of our MEPs, 40% of the council seats we defended and control of 9 councils. Although we have gained signifiant ground in local elections since, we are still on less than a third of our 2010 vote share in the opinion polls, – although we did, briefly, get back up there last year.

There is no doubt that the Liberal Democrat ministers delivered some brilliant and progressive measures. During that period there were huge advances in the fight against climate change, most of which have now been rolled back by the Conservatives on their own. Our Pupil Premium gave a lot more money to support disadvantaged children in school and its benefits were already being seen in terms of attainment and will continue to do so. Improving mental health was given high priority on the political agenda with Paul Burstow and Norman Lamb making more services available. Better consumer protection, shared parental leave, same sex marriage, a transgender action plan and ending the export of execution drugs to the US are just a few examples of the good that we did.

There is no doubt that we stopped the Conservatives doing some really awful things. We know this because they did them the very minute that we were off the scene – things like even more swingeing cuts to social security which drove up inequality and poverty.

The point of this article is to look at the context in which the party made its decision to go in to coalition. There are no silent words like “on earth” in the title. Why did we do a deal with the Tories, with whom we were fundamentally incompatible in values and outlook? We were under many different kinds of pressure. Hindsight, of course, tells us that we could have done some things differently but it is important to understand what it was like at the time.

The first consideration was that we had not been dealt a very easy hand. The parliamentary arithmetic didn’t give us much choice. The only way of getting a majority coalition between two parties was with the Conservatives. Labour and us, even if Labour were remotely interested in talking to us, would only have managed 315 seats so would have needed the support of other parties in order to govern.  Nick Clegg had always said that he would talk to the largest party first, so it was with the Conservatives, on 306 seats, that Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander, David Laws and Andrew Stunell sat down on the Sunday after the election.

In a context of a very fragile economy – and as they talked in the Cabinet Office, the Greek economy was on the verge of collapse – there was a sense that they needed to get on with it so as not to spook the markets. There was a huge pressure to form a stable government. And we certainly managed that. It was actually more functional than most of the single party governments of my lifetime. However, the economies of European countries seem to remain relatively spook-free in the weeks it generally takes them to form governments, and this was a lesson we would do well to learn in the future. Coming to an agreement in haste, within five days of a gruelling election campaign is not a thing we should do in the future.

The Scottish experience will have weighed heavily, too. Liberal Democrats had enjoyed 8 years of successful coalition in Scotland and could point to transformational change – the abolition of university tuition fees, free personal care, Single Transferable Vote elections for local government, free eye and dental checks. All of these things remain in place to this day. An SNP minority government had taken over in 2007 and we had struggled to make any sort of impact. I wrote about the Scottish experience in an article at the time:

Posted in News | 29 Comments

The C Word 10 years on: Crossing the RubiCon

As we mark 10 years since the formulation of the coalition, I’m reposting my initial thoughts from 8 May 2010 about how we should approach the dangerous situation in which we found ourselves:

This is going to be a very quick post. If you want deeper, more robust analysis, go to the lovely Elephant or Daddy Alex. With 15 minutes to go to Doctor Who, you are not going to get any more than a few random thoughts from me.

Firstly, a few right wing commentators are getting their knickers in a twist and describing the current series of civilised negotiations between the parties as “chaos”. They have clearly led very sheltered lives. This is a perfectly normal part of the democratic process in most of the rest of Europe and beyond.

Secondly, I like Nick Clegg’s style. He takes the trouble to go and talk to the 1000 demonstrators outside where he was meeting the Parliamentary Party. Can you see either David Cameron or Gordon Brown doing that?

Thirdly, I grew up in the 80s. I hate the Tories with an absolute passion. Thatcher came to power when I was roughly the same age as my daughter is now and my education was punctuated with poor or no equipment, not enough teachers, strikes and my school was falling to bits. Do I want this for her? No way! However, the first 10 years of her life have seen an authoritarian Labour government which has been complicit in torture, has eroded our civil liberties, damaged our standing by taking part in illegal wars and has repeatedly crapped all over the poorest and most vulnerable. I really loathe and detest them too. Almost equally. Trying to choose between them is like being on some trashy game show and having to choose between eating a wichety grub and a kangaroo’s testicle. Either way, I’m going to throw up. Having said that, the stakes are high – the country needs a decent government and we have a responsibility to look at all possibilities of building one. That means, unfortunately, talking to parties we don’t like.

Fourthly, the 24 hour news cycle is a hungry beast and tends to over analyse every sigle word that people say for hidden meaning. This is not helpful and we probably shouldn’t do it either.

Fifthly, it is in the interests of both Labour and the Tories to derail this process. They want to maintain the current duopoly that the current electoral process creates. Of course they do. Turkeys don’t have a habit of voting for Christmas. They are trying to make out that it’s all down to Nick to do a deal with them on their terms. Actually, their leaders have to behave like mature adults.

It is in ours to make it work. That doesn’t necessarily mean forming a coalition with anybody, but it does mean that we need to be open, businesslike and willing to explore all the possibilities.

Posted in Op-eds | 34 Comments

The C Word 10 years on: How it all began

In some ways, the days following the 2010 election seem so much more than a decade ago. I have definitely cried more than 10 years’ worth of tears in that time. The long term effect of the coalition on our party has been profound. The decisions we made within it were still being used as a stick to beat us with in the most recent General Election.

We’ll be looking in more detail at the formation of the Coalition in the days to come. It was a process that many of us viewed nervously but that the Party backed overwhelmingly in a special conference in Birmingham.

But on this day, 10 years ago, then co-editor of LDV and now Party President Mark Pack set out what we could expect as Liberal Democrat leaders entered into talks firstly with the Conservatives:

The Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party and the Federal Executive are scheduled to meet again on Monday. If a firm proposal is coming out from the talks today, expect it to be put to them both tomorrow. The big question is what might be proposed…?

Right across the party, both from senior to grassroots levels and from social through to economic liberals, there is very strong feeling that significant movements on electoral reform are a must for any arrangement. Given the country’s current economic woes, there is widespread agreement that PR isn’t the only issue at stake, but – for example – I’ve not spoken to anyone in the party who thinks the budget deficit is such a dominating issue that PR can be put on the back-burner for a few years.

Posted in Op-eds | 24 Comments
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