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:

The challenge for the Liberal Democrats is to balance the risks. If people feel that we’ve made a difference, that our presence has taken the sting out of the Tories at Westminster the same way we took the sting out of Labour in Holyrood, then Labour may be laughing on the other side of their faces.

I think back 11 years to the first Holyrood coalition negotiations which I observed from a distance as we were still living in England then. It made me feel a bit icky to be talking to the big red devil and I knew the risks were high that we’d get completely shafted.

When the agreement was issued, containing what seemed for all the world like a giant pot of fudge on tuition fees, it took a lot to calm the instinctive rage that rose within me. Actually, to be honest, I probably only survived cos of the mellow pregnancy hormones which were flooding my system. Seriously, though, I remember writing on a Lib Dem internet forum at the time that I thought we should give the deal a chance. Four years on, Scottish students did not pay upfront tuition fees, making a huge difference to so many people.

Whatever emerges from the discussions over the next few days, I think we have to give it the same chance, however bad it might make us feel.

One of the things that I found profoundly depressing was that the future of our country was, at that time, being decided by 8 men in a room. Alison Suttie was certainly there as Nick Clegg’s Chief of Staff, taking notes in Russian as she told Helen Duffett in a 2013 issue of Lib Dem Members’ magazine Ad Lib but both teams were made up entirely of white men. In that same article above, I wrote how we had included people from the Scottish Party Executive in both 2003 and 2007 and we should have done so here.

When I wrote that, though,  exactly 10 years ago, my instincts were to let the Conservative form a minority government and influence where we could.  I was very wary about what we would have to agree to. Subsequent events have perhaps vindicated these concerns, but at the time there was a fear that if we failed to step up, we would be seen as irrelevant and punished for that decision in an election in the Autumn. That election, so the theory went, would let in Cameron with a massive majority, and that would be awful. Those fears were also entirely justified. We see all too clearly how the Conservatives are hellbent on destroying our economy, our international standing and our planet when left unchallenged.

Back in 2010, we were motivated by doing the right thing for our country. We wanted to bring in measures which would make the biggest difference to the most vulnerable in our society. Those are honourable and liberal aims.

It’s also important to remember that this was a decision that had the endorsement of the party in a special conference. I think that many who cast their vote in favour did so nervously, but it wasn’t like our parliamentarians were taking us to a place where we didn’t want to go.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Paul Barker 10th May '20 - 3:20pm

    I was an enthusiastic supporter of The Coalition at the time & even went on reluctantly backing it up to the end. I was wrong, along with most other Libdems.
    We thought we were “Putting The Country first” but we certainly were not, in hindsight.

    What it comes down to is our lack of belief in ourselves & Our Values. If we are mostly Right then its in The Interests of Our Country for Liberal Democrats to Form The Government as soon as possible, everything we do & say should flow from that. We joined The Coalition, in spite of all the warning voices because we never really believed in our Hearts that we could Lead a Government.

    We should move on & make it clear that we will never join another Coalition unless, Either we are Leading it or we have a solid, enthusiastic Promise of Electoral Reform from our Partners. We need to say it to ourselves & others, again & again until We believe it.

  • I’m sure this article is well meaning but I don’t think it does the party any favours, we badly need to move on.

  • Leekliberal 10th May '20 - 6:37pm

    Barker says ‘We joined The Coalition, in spite of all the warning voices because we never really believed in our Hearts that we could Lead a Government.’ No! I was one of the hundreds of representatives who backed the coalition with the Tories at the Birmingham meeting despite my longstanding dislike of them. As Caron says, it was the only show in town and with a huge financial crisis I felt it was my duty to support the only possible stable coalition to deal with it. If Vince, a serious strategist, had been our leader and our relationship with the Tories had remained strictly contractual we wouldn’t have made many of the mistakes that we we did under Nick Clegg.

  • Phil Wainewright 10th May '20 - 6:58pm

    The history of the coalition will always be thrown at us so it’s a history we need to understand @Andrew T. Caron’s right to remind us of the position back in 2010, when there was a need for stable government in the midst of economic crisis and the numbers didn’t support a coalition with Labour. In my view the mistake was not going into Coalition but how the party handled it. I believe there were two really big mistakes.

    1) Like all the mainstream political parties at the time, our leaders were far too bought into the narrative that prosperity should be led by private capital and would then ‘trickle down’ to the rest of society. This led to an overemphasis on public sector austerity at a time when the financial crisis had broken the trickle-down model and a new social contract was needed.

    2) Paul Barker is absolutely right to say there was a lack of belief we could ever lead a government – but I disagree with his conclusion. We’re never going to go straight to government (ask Jo Swinson what happens when we try!) so we must share power along the way. However under Nick Clegg the party simply aimed to demonstrate our competence in government. The party never projected a clear and constant message about what we would aim to do as a majority government, as distinct from what the coaliton government was doing. So nobody got a clear message what we stood for (and indeed the party seemed confused at times on that point in its handling of policies such as secret courts etc).

  • The most painful part of the Coalition for people like myself who voted Lib Dem and believed the campaign talk of Change..doing things differently etc was the full blooded passion and vigour to the awful and cruel cuts by so many Lib Dem MPs. The party was destroyed by entering the coalition and still many years from recovery if that’s even possible. I suppose one thing to salute is the nobility of ruining the party for the sake of the country. What a terrible tragic mess.

  • RUTH COLEMAN-TAYLOR 10th May '20 - 9:01pm

    At the special Conference I spoke in favour of joining the Coalition and voted in favour. I stand by that decision. The Parliamentary arithmetic did not offer any other option and I believe that if we had opted out we would have been seen as irrelevant.
    I think that the Party was totally unprepared for this outcome to the 2010 election. There was no shortage of experience and advice about how to work in a coalition, both within the Party (in Scotland and in Local Government) and among our sister parties in Europe, most of whom have served in Coalitions. It appears that very little of this advice was accepted by the then leadership.
    We missed a great opportunity to explain to people how Coalitions work: basically, that the price of getting (some) Lib Dem policies implemented was voting for (some) Conservative policies. I agree with other comments that throughout this period we should have been publicising our full manifesto and campaigning for the opportunity to implement all of it.

  • Alex Macfie 10th May '20 - 9:33pm

    Phil Wainewright

    “We’re never going to go straight to government (ask Jo Swinson what happens when we try!”

    Let’s bury once and for all this nonsense idea that we failed in 2019 BECAUSE Jo portrayed herself as an alternative PM. She (and the party as a whole) would have attacked if she hadn’t done so. Our enemies’ line of attack would have been “What’s the point in voting Lib Dem: even our leader admits we can’t win?” Basically (as with a lot of things in the 2019 campaign) we were damned if we did, damned if we didn’t, and our big failure was the failure to recognise the bad faith in many of our opponents (enemies) and react to it accordingly.
    As for the Coalition, again the same thing. Clegg assumed too much good faith on the part of the Tories, and as noted above, the arrangement should have been strictly contractual.

  • Andrew Tampion 11th May '20 - 7:47am

    There was, and is, nothing wrong with going into coalition with either the Tories or Labour. Provided that a joint program can be agreed. In fact coalitions are almost inevitable if some form of proportional voting system is introduced.
    The problem was the naivety and incompetence of some of our leaders. I remember during party conference season during the coalition the Tories were always careful to ensure that they could highlight successes and announce policy proposals which appealed to the general electorate as well as members and supporters and we didn’t. Call it populism if you like but sometimes you have to do that sort of thing to get elected and carry out your program. Also we allowed the Tories to appropriate and present as their own some of our popular policies, increasing the Income Tax threshold comes to mind.

  • Kieran Seale 11th May '20 - 10:26am

    The experience of Ciudadanos in Spain is worth bearing in mind. They refused to go into coalition even though they could have been part of a stable government and were also annihilated at the subsequent election.
    People seem to assume that if we hadn’t have gone into coalition, we wouldn’t have been wiped out at the next election. But it is possible that people might have thought “what is the point of voting for these guys if they turn down the opportunity to govern” and lost seats anyway.

  • We have to accept that we got cannon foddered during the coalition and the tories used as cover for the unpleasant cuts. The soft Labour side have found it hard to forgive us and so do many in Scotland. We must acknowledge this and learn from it. We must also accept that Brexit is lost and that the new Europe being drawn up is becoming more defensive towards international trade now our influence is gone. So we need to have good levels of good local government, we need to stress our environmental, economic and governance competence and regain the trust of voters and that may also include the support of Scottish independence

  • Phil Beesley 11th May '20 - 2:01pm

    Joseph Bourke: “The issues we need to confront as a party are we prepared to raise public spending to much higher levels pemanently (45% to 50%) and keep it there with the higher taxes this requires or simply (like labour) keep calling for more spending but not the taxes needed to pay for it over the longer term.”

    You present choices as if, in a few months time, everything will become normal.

    The issues we need to consider as a party are human: how we look after our neighbours; how we debate the halfwits who have put the UK in such a pickle.

    If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.

  • David Garlick 11th May '20 - 5:20pm

    “When I wrote that, though, exactly 10 years ago, my instincts were to let the Conservative form a minority government and influence where we could. I was very wary about what we would have to agree to. Subsequent events have perhaps vindicated these concerns, but at the time there was a fear that if we failed to step up, we would be seen as irrelevant and punished for that decision in an election in the Autumn.”
    Your instincts were quite right and in line with my own. Confidence and supply was the way to go. Good work done by LD ministers have largely been wiped out as we were. Trust a Conservative? Get your fingers burnt. I suspect that Labour would have been no better a bed fellow if a little closer in outlook.

  • Nigel Quinton 11th May '20 - 5:51pm

    Like many others – was it 99% in Birmingham? – I was a supporter of the coalition at the start, albeit with misgivings. As others have said above, it wasn’t necessarily the entry to Coalition that was the problem, but the way we behaved in Coalition, failing to present ourselves as ‘in government on your side’ and instead being seen as the Tories’ poodles.

    Our ministers did do a lot of good, and some of it remains, but we need to recognise the damage we did to our party through our naivety and admit that we let the experiment run on too long. In hindsight, a sensible policy might have been to support the Tories until the Coalition Agreement policies had been enacted – roughly half the parliament, and then call time on it – God knows we had enough opportunities to say enough is enough – bedroom tax, NHS reforms, failure to back DECC’s green agenda with money from HMT…

  • Katerina Porter 11th May '20 - 8:19pm

    Charles Kennedy voted against the coalition with the idea of agreeing to support when the proposal something we thought right

  • James Fowler 12th May '20 - 10:05am

    In my view every option in 2010 led to disaster. I’ll explain why in a moment, but let’s briefly shuttle through the options and where I think they would have taken us:

    1. Confidence and Supply for a Conservative minority. The Tories fix the economy temporarily with our help, then call another election. LDs get thrashed between – ‘They had the chance to be in government and ducked it’ (Cons) and ‘They helped the Tories’ (Lab).

    2. Support Labour. A few years of miserable knife edge minority government and economic woes followed by an election. LDs get thrashed – ‘They kept Brown in No. 10!’

    3. Support the Conservatives. Well, we know what happened. The wisest thing I’ve heard said in retrospect is that we should have traded the AV referendum for keeping tuition fees at £3000 p/a. A more high risk strategy perhaps would have been to insist that AV was whipped through as it was only a minor change.

    One of the saddest things about 2010 is that disaster was baked in. The big LD party of 50-60 MPs we all fondly remember was built on an all things to all people/none of the above strategy that can never withstand the test of government. ‘Every election a by election’ only gets you so far. We can be a successful element of coalitions – when we have made it absolutely clear what we stand for and are no longer an opportunistic franchise operation.

  • @ James Fowler A very fair assessment, James.

    But what is there to stop it happening all over again if enough of the electorate have an unlikely damascene conversion and start voting Lib Dem in sufficient numbers again ?

  • James Belchamber 12th May '20 - 2:41pm

    >It’s also important to remember that this was a decision that had the endorsement of the party in a special conference. I think that many who cast their vote in favour did so nervously, but it wasn’t like our parliamentarians were taking us to a place where we didn’t want to go.

    This isn’t really true. While the conference certainly endorsed the coalition, MPs then went on to brazenly ignore the membership. Tuition fees were the most visible example.

    I believed at the time, and I believe now, that going in to coalition was the right thing to do. But since becoming a member what I’ve found is that trust between the membership and the parliamentary party has completely broken down – and it’s clear that there’s no real mechanism for disciplining (or ejecting) MPs that take actions in opposition to the wishes of the membership, as expressed through conference.

    What stops them doing it again?

  • James Fowler 12th May '20 - 3:17pm

    @ David Raw: Thank you!

    I share your concern too. I’m not totally hostile to the Rennard strategy, I just think that it’s been tried and tested over a forty year cycle 1970-2010 and we know where it ends.

    What I’d like to see is the Lib Dems take over a piece of political/electoral real estate and make it their own. The catch is that you have to give up on some others. Are we brave enough? The rewards would be consistent influence and eventual coalition government again, but on very different terms.

  • The sad truth is that Clegg played a strong hand weakly.

    We had fought an election campaign on the slogan “no more broken promises”, then allowed ourselves to be manoeuvred into a position where most of our MPs had to break their most prominent and visible promise.

    Meanwhile we allowed Cameron to keep his promise that pensioners would be almost completely isolated from the cuts of austerity.

    There really is nothing more to be said.

  • @David Raw

    It probably is going to happen again, ideally we’d be more clear in our direction and aims and objectives as a party, but the reality is we won’t want to turn down anyone claiming to want to be part of us or with money behind them so we’ll carry on being a franchise operation.

  • @ James Belchamber “It’s also important to remember that this was a decision that had the endorsement of the party in a special conference”.

    Errrr, no, not quite James. The Deputy Prime Minister conveniently soon forgot the conditions Conference placed on that endorsement.
    “The Guardian, 16 May, 2010,
    Liberal Democrat activists tonight sent their leadership a sharp reminder not to betray the party’s key promises to scrap tuition fees, protect the Human Rights Act and campaign for radical electoral reform in their coalition deal with the Conservatives.

    Party activists meeting in Birmingham today voted overwhelmingly to ratify the coalition deal but also passed a series of motions to reaffirm the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledges where they differ sharply from the Conservatives. Nick Clegg told the conference that the stakes were high – for him personally – but that the chance to change the country by forming the coalition was too good to pass by.

    Today it emerged that the former party leader Charles Kennedy refused to back the deal, fearing that a formal coalition with the Tories could wreck plans for a progressive centre-left alliance in British politics”.

    Be interesting to know what percentage of those still living delegates have maintained their party membership.

  • Paul Barker 12th May '20 - 5:14pm

    I have to disagree with most of the comments, the Problem was Coalition, of any sort, with anybody bigger than Us & No, we didnt believe in ourselves then & We still dont.

    I still think that Clegg would have made a Good PM but he obviously didnt, or rather he saw our 60 MPs as some sort of lucky break, he didnt really imagine that he would ever be PM himself so its no wonder he accepted so little.
    We need to start thinking of every advance as just a stepping stone to the next, until we can at least form the largest Party in a Coalition then we will never do anything really useful.
    This is not fantasy, twice, in the early 1980s & again in 2010 we have come close to
    breaking through, the first time we were stopped by the Invasion of The Falklands but 2010 was all down to Us.

    Probably it will be another Decade or more before we get back to a 2010 level so lets not waste the opportunity again.

  • James Belchamber 12th May '20 - 7:36pm

    @David Raw what you quoted from me is in the original article. You should read it.

  • Which ‘original article’ are you referring to, Mr Belchamber ? A bit more precision please.

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