The Independent View: If I were in your shoes…views from the other side of the Coalition

At Stephen Tall’s suggestion I’m giving advice to Lib Dems on what I’d do if I were in your shoes and, in return, he’s giving electoral advice to my ConservativeHome readers. You can read Stephen’s piece here

My first recommendation is to stay the course. There is no advantage for the Liberal Democrats in pulling out of the Coalition anytime soon. You’ll get the blame for having got into bed with horrible Conservatives like me but little of the credit if the economy does show signs of perkiness by the end of the parliament. I think it is to your party’s credit that there are no significant voices calling for an early exit. Although the public isn’t enjoying coalition government at the moment you will have achieved a strategic success if voters come to believe that hung parliaments don’t equate to national disaster. The two big parties will certainly lose an important propaganda tool if they can no longer scare voters with the spectre of an inconclusive election result.

Kill the NHS Bill. This seems more and more unlikely to happen but the Health and Social Care Bill is a millstone around both of our parties’ necks. I think it’s got worse since Shirley Williams et al starting amending it, and, no doubt, most LibDemVoice readers think it’s got better. Neither of us are enthused by it, however. The next few years are going to be very difficult for the NHS as the tightest ever spending settlement impacts hospitals across the land. Without the Bill the problems in the NHS will be blamed on the empty Treasury. If the Bill proceeds all problems will be blamed on the Bill and therefore the Coalition. Even at this late stage allies of Nick Clegg should find a pretext to stop the Lansley plan reaching the statute book. If Clegg acts you will have resonant proof that you made a big difference in government. The resonance will be all the greater because it will have been done at such a dramatic, last gasp moment. Every voter in the land will credit the Lib Dems for stopping the Tories from dismantling/ privatising/ ruining etc etc their health service.

It’s also important that the Liberal Democrats are seen as more than roadblocks. There is mounting frustration on the blue side of the Coalition that the Lib Dems are blocking Tory initiatives without offering many interesting ideas of their own. Mark Pack has also noted a lack of Lib Dem vitality on policy-making. One area where you have, however, been setting the pace is on funding tax cuts for the poor with new taxes on wealth. This is actually a policy I support. It’s good economics (it’s better to tax property than income) and it’s certainly good politics (the squeezed middle could do with a little less pressure). The theme is a win-win for you. If George Osborne moves on the issue you have scored an important victory. If he doesn’t you retain a popular campaigning message. The challenge is to broaden the policy and fix in voters’ minds that Liberal Democrats are always on the side of working families.

Fight for an elected Lords. An elected Lords is, according to Ming Campbell, in your party’s DNA but it is also absolutely in your party’s electoral interest. It is impossible to believe that an upper house connected to the electricity of democracy won’t become more legitimate, more powerful and more central to national life. Allied with Crossbenchers Lib Dem peers already hold the balance of power in the Lords. That advantage will become permanent if the Coalition ensures election is by thirds and by proportional representation. You are unlikely to remember this five year parliament for many political successes. You’re likely to lose MPs, many northern councillors and, of course, you’ve lost AV. Win control of the Lords, however, and politically you will have won a gift that keeps on giving.

Finally, you need to change party leader. Not now. Not, I suggest, until 2014. But you can’t go into the next election with Nick Clegg at the top of your ticket. I can see it now – Clegg in the televised debates looking into the camera and looking for another Manchester moment. After he’s delivered his lines the debate anchor will turn to the Labour leader (it might be Ed Miliband but I wouldn’t like to bet on it) and ask for a reaction. All the Labour leader has to say is “tuition fees”. “No student, no parent, no voter will ever believe a promise you make, Mr Clegg, after you promised to scrap tuition fees and then increased them dramatically.” To recover left-leaning voters you also need a new leader who voters might think could happily form a coalition with Labour. For once Lembit Opik is right (although I think I got there first). Clegg should carry on as Deputy PM until the end of the parliament but he should resign as party leader with 12 to 18 months to go before the election. A new leader can then start the process of establishing a distinctive Lib Dem pitch for 2015.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Tim Montgomerie is the editor of

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • It’s really interesting to see this kind of exchange of ideas between parties. And although this stops slightly short of ‘dialogue’, it’s definitely a step in the right direction, as well as just being an interesting perspective on LibDem politics. Now I’m going to read Stephen Tall on ConHome !
    I hope the comments remain polite 🙂

  • Fair comments but I think you’re being deliberately misleading on the House of Lords (learnt some lessons from the AV referendum?). By my calculations, in an 80% elected house – which seems the more likely outcome so far – the independent ‘experts’ would almost always be able to give Lab or Con a majority (i.e. if the legislation is good) while the Lib Dems almost always couldn’t, even on our pre-2011, FPTP vote share.

  • Martin Pierce 6th Mar '12 - 11:01am

    I don’t know whether to be delighted or concerned but I think Tim Montgomerie has it about right on every count – both philosophically and tactically. The NHS Bill and Clegg leadersharea pints are particularly pertinent. Though if he does the former, Nick may just avoid the latter.

  • Malcolm Todd 6th Mar '12 - 11:05am

    @Adam — I don’t think your argument works. You seem to be assuming that the independents will vote as a bloc, which is hugely unlikely. I think the point is that the LibDems combined with the leading party would be likely to command 45-48% of the votes straight away, which would leave them needing only a very little support from independents to get their way.

    In fact, overall I think this is disturbingly sound advice from Mr ConHome. Must be some evil Tory trick, surely?

  • Paul Pettinger 6th Mar '12 - 11:21am

    I agree with pretty much all of that Tim. Very depressing to have sensible top line strategy pointed out by a non-Lib Dem, and a right wing one at that.

  • If something is to good to be true, it usually is. I am sure there must be some ulterior motive behind a far right wing Tory giving “alleged” advice to Libdems on future electoral success.

  • Given the emphasis we put on tuition fees during the run up, and the clamour by students to support Nick during the negotiations, I am continually astonished that our brightest and best did not spot this unexplored bomb during the drafting of the coalition agreement

    I notice Tim doesn’t mention the Boundary Review. Frankly given the appalling way the Tories and their fellow travellers acted during AV, there’s a lot to be said for shafting the whole review process.

    Having acquiesced on the health bill to start with Clegg would appear weak and vacillating to suddenly oppose it entirely but I suspect that this bill is now so badly drafted that a coach and horses can be driven through it to suit any set of prejudices. The only credible path would be to scupper it and immediately resign for having ever supported it.

  • LondonLiberal 6th Mar '12 - 11:47am

    “I agree with Tim”. Can we get t-shirts and posters printed to that effect, please?

    More seriously, i hope someone/some spad in the Whitehall bunker is reading this – Polly, Emily, Matt, Katie, Julia – anyone listening?

  • A thoughtful piece by Tim Montgomery with some interesting points

    I agree with the move away from income based taxation to a^’wealth-based’ tax but I wonder how easy it will be to sell in the current climate and also, I am not sure if just a ‘mansion tax’ is the right approach. A more radical review of taxation may be necessary – perhaps the LD could settle for the short-term taxing of high-end properties but also launch a study on how this could be incorporated into a different way of using taxation.

    The elected Lords is also a good debating point – again the author raises the contradictions in making amendments to existing institutions – sometimes you have to reconstruct from the beginning in order to have something that makes sense and is sustainable. I would like to see a second, electorally-based second chamber but it cannot surely have the same constituitional basis as the current one for the reasons given. If we are going to change the constitutional role then we may as well look at root and branch reform (beginning with aboilition of the monarchy, disestablishment etc just to be controversial!). In the end I think these contradictions always prevent any reform (including the last Labour government)

    On the NHS and Nick Clegg I am in complete agreement

    A very good piece and I hope we can see some good debate on the points raised. It, however, should not be forgotten that this is not the whole story concerning the Tories and a substantial minority (if not majority) would argue harder against some of these points than I would

  • Paul Ankers 6th Mar '12 - 12:20pm

    Two things jump out. Unless i am reading this wrong, Tim is advocating killing the NHS bill, just as I see LibDem support crumbling (at least on twitter). It is weak as piss now and there is no point doing anything mealy mouthed in government.
    The other is our lack of policy vision. Christ sakes, there is a LD policy faction on every street corner nowadays yet we aren’t the most visionary party anymore on policy and we were always streets ahead. They would mock our uncosted ideas and then nick then three years later.
    The Tories have taken our mantle in this regard. What exactly has happened? And what are we going to do about it?

  • Paul Ankers 6th Mar '12 - 12:46pm

    He’s pretending to be Stephen Tall. Its all explained at the start.
    Read Stephen tall saying nice things about Thatcher….

  • Malcolm Todd 6th Mar '12 - 12:46pm

    @Geoffrey Payne
    I don’t think it’s true that the deficit reduction strategy “spawned” NHS reforms — wholsesale restructuring never saves money in the short-to-medium term and only management consultants believe it does in the long term; and I’m sceptical about its relevance to tuition fees too.
    In other words, these were three separate, huge capitulations, not just one big one with unfortunate side-effects!

  • @Redndead

    ” I am continually astonished that our brightest and best did not spot this unexplored bomb during the drafting of the coalition agreement”

    Actually, I’ve always been surprised that your brightest and best didn’t realise how daft the whole signed pledge thing was before the election. I’ve always thought that it was down to a lack or real ambition (i.e. no one involved ever actually thought you may end up in government).

  • paul barker 6th Mar '12 - 1:33pm

    I cant agree about losing Clegg & by 2014 I think British politics will look very different. We dont have to wait till then to find out, if I am right we are going to do much better in May than almost anyone expects. Labour confidently expect a repeat of last year & they are in for a nasty shock. How they react to that shock will tell us a lot about how the next 3 years will go.
    Like most non-Labour comments, Tims piece doesnt understand how Labour works. Changing Leaders against their will is very nearly impossible, any serious attempt to ditch Milliband would be a sign of utter desperation.

  • David Allen 6th Mar '12 - 2:06pm

    “It is impossible to believe that an upper house connected to the electricity of democracy won’t become more legitimate, more powerful and more central to national life. ”

    So that’s what we want, is it – Gridlock, US style?

    “An elected Lords is … absolutely in your party’s electoral interest.”

    Hmm. Tim Montgomerie has a nice straightforward writing style, he’s polite and even complimentary, but we also know that he wants to reduce our influence in coalition. Do we really trust the above comment? Or is it just like – Blair was about to give us PR, Cameron was about to give us AV, etc, and then somehow things changed when we got closer? How many more times are we going to buy this pig in a poke?

  • Some sensible advice but worth remembering that Tim desperately wants a Tory majority in 2015. He wants the health bill killed because he believes it is electoral poison. I believe he is sincere about shifting burden of taxation from income to wealth and is looking for allies because he knows it is a tough sell in the Tory party. His stance on HoL reform is intriguing. Not sure whether he genuinely sees the merits or believes reform will get bogged down and Lib Dems will simply expend political capital they can ill afford on a doomed project.
    I agree with him that Clegg must go before 2015 but suspect it is for rather different reasons. I think Lib Dems will be crushed with Clegg in charge. I suspect Tim is worried that if Clegg is still around in 2015 Tory high command may settle in 2015 for continuation of the coalition rather than gamble boldly for a Tory majority.

  • Paul Barker

    I think one of the risks for the LD is hoping that everything will come right. I have seen your posts on using the current voting patterns from council by-elections to predict the voting patterns in future elctions and, at the same time decrying the polls produced by the polling organisations. The numbers you have used for your predictions have taken no account of the actual demographics of the seats and the local issues involved. As I have previously said a similar analysis of Parliamentary by-elections will produce a completely different, but equally mistaken, picture.

    The message from the pollsters is a consistent low teens average for the LD (with a +-3% MoE) which seems to tie in okay with the 2011 LE result of around 16%.

    I cannot see how Clegg will deliver a much larger share as his credibility outside hardcore LD is shot for the reasons explained by numerous posters above.

    The key voters at the next election for the LD will be the tactical voters in seats where the Tories came second – without these you will probably lose a number of seats as well as losing seats to Labour in the urban North and also to the SNP in Scotland

    By hiding away from these potential realities, whether you like them or not, will not help. Although, Tim is looking at it from a Tory point of view he is also probably trying to minimise LD losses to Labour by promoting those policies that will also gain some sympathy from the leftish voters (except perhaps the 50p tax)

  • Another brilliant article from Tim. I’m a Tory, but I support the coalition and would much much much rather the Lib Dems be in government than Labour. Anyway, I agree about the NHS reforms. This is the Lib Dems biggest chance at a comeback in the polls and it’d also be quietly supported by many many Tories. It’s really good to hear Cable and Clegg saying that the 50P tax may go in return for wealth taxes. I find this much fairer and it would actually boost business and growth, which is another thing both parties want/need. I’d like to see more of this Tory/Lib Dem advice swap. We may not agree all the time, but there are definitely many issues where there’s agreement and I won’t let our differences get in the way of improving Britain.

  • I can’t see HoL reform doing much for us in the eyes of the public than reinforcing the idea that we are more interested in changing the rules of the game than playing the game. Especially if its dangled in front of us like a carrot, and then taken away at the last minute. If we can get Lords reform, great, but we shouldn’t spend too much time on it. The public is more interested in the economy, which is dire and should be the focus of Tory and Lib Dem attention.

  • paul barker 6th Mar '12 - 4:06pm

    Bassaszc, I think the big danger for the Libdems is talking ourselves down. I dont advocate ignoring polls just taking them in context & part of that context is the continuous trickle of Local Elections. Comparing them with Parliamentary byelections is just silly, you get, what, 4 or 5 a year. There are usually that many Locals every week. Its the numbers that make them useful, averaging out any local factors.
    We will see in 2 months time, my prediction is that we will lose less than 50 seats.

  • @Paul Barker

    You are right that we will see in two months but I remain very skeptical that you will achieve over 16% which in Parliamentary terms will be a real blow – also the LD tend to outperform in LE.

    I agree with your comments on Parliamentary by-elections but there are not ‘many’ council elections every week. There have been 19 principal elections this year according to ALDC (the others are parish and town councils) and of these 3 out of 19 have been Labour seats with almost as many being UKIP – the LD tend to do well in Tory areas and less well in Labour. I suggest that using these figures and presenting then as indicators is as mistaken.

    We will have to disagree on what will constitute the biggest threat to the LD come the next election – I still think getting rid of Clegg is a must.

    @tom jones

    Interesting, a self-proclaimed Tory supporting the Coalition. I would ask one question – are you going to vote LD at the next election if you are so happy with what they are doing? If not I think this encapsulates the problem as the LD need to ensure Tory voters support them in order to prevent a significant loss of seats.

    I will make some assumptions here

    In South the LD are mainly challenged by Tory and so need to ensure they either capture Tory voters or keep the voters they have (some of which will have been tactical voters)

    In the North and Scotland there will be a loss of votes to Labour or SNP and these will need to be made up by Tory transfers

    The only examples we have to go on to show these problems are the Parliamentary by-elections (especial the 3-way marginal in OE&S) and also the council elections where the biggest losses to the LD were to their coalition partners – if tom jones will not vote LD despite being so enthused then which Tories will?

  • I thought Stephen Tall’s input was actually pretty poor – Montgomerie’s came across much better. It perhaps shows that Stephen’s heart wasn’t really in it. Does he really think that Tories listen to the Lib Dems? I would imagine that the Lib Dem’s have a much better record of listening and taking onboard other people’s views than the Tories and so are much easier to write for in this context.

    They are not called Conservative for nothing!

  • David Allen 6th Mar '12 - 5:21pm

    Stephen Tall was nostalgic for Thatcher’s ability to appeal to those aspiring to improve their lot, not just those who have already made it. This just reminds me how double-edged concepts like “aspiration” and “social mobility” can be.

    Thatcher’s typical social climbers were the people who raced out to buy their council houses on state subsidy, then raced down to B&Q for a swank new front door so as to show their neighbours how superior they had now become. In those days they flaunted Tory posters at election time for much the same reasons, and of course the Tories harvested the votes.

    It’s the same with “freedom”, which can of course be a highly noble concept, but can also mean “let me do just whatever I want to do, and don’t let anyone else’s interests stand in my way”.

    It’s the same with “meritocracy”, which can mean “rewarding hard work and effort”, but can also mean “we bright young things are the masters now, make way!”

    Our party used to understand the difference. It used to talk about aspiration in terms of legitimate goals, about fairness and community as well as ambitious individuals or couples, about internationalism, about ideals. Does it still?

  • Jedibeeftrix

    Hmmm. Not particularly impressed. Doesn’t really speak of the reality as I see it

    “Libertarians are only called “Right-wing” because the relative strength of the Left over the past half-century, and its obsession with the goal of equality (an unworkable idea but one that appeals to our sense of “liberty/oppression”) has made the two groups allies. Of course there is the probability that smashing the state would probably help to make society more conservative in some ways, since bohemian lifestyles require having someone else to pick up the cheque if it all goes wrong, but libertarians are not motivated by this, but rather by a burning resentment at the way the state has become over-mighty and interfering. That these disparate groups can easily be lumped together only goes to illustrate the growing power of the all-powerful the statist Left-liberalism they both oppose for different reasons.”

  • Spookily agree with most of this…

  • Stephen Tall 6th Mar '12 - 7:14pm

    Me nostalgic for Thatcher? Not so much. But I think it’s important to understand the popular appeal of politicians you don’t agree with if you ever want to win.

  • I happen to agree with this (except the proposed mansion tax is much too high at 1%), but I think this is self-interested too:

    1. Stay the course – means Cameron can stay on as leader.
    2. Kill the NHS bill – because it’s damaging the Tories.
    3. Keeping pushing for wealth taxes – so the Tories’ wealthy donors keep on giving and to alienate our supporters in leafier parts of the UK where we are the main challengers to the Tories.
    4. Fight for an elected Lords – to keep us distracted from real-world issues and because it’s still dominated by Labour. If we succeed, we will have less to fight for in future and the Tories won’t have to keep defending the indefensible. Also he wants us to compromise on party list where we do badly.
    5. Change our leader – Clegg will take votes predominantly from the Tories, whereas a new more left-of-centre leader such as Tim Farron will take votes away from Labour.

  • @Stephen Tall
    Thatcher appealed to a great many normal working people, Blair to the middle Englanders, both held power for a long time. Even with our skewed voting system leaders need to appeal outside of their core vote and members if they are to be successful.

    I remember thinking at the time of the last Tory leadership contest that they messed up by not choosing Davis. The boy from the Council estate would have appealed to some traditional labour voters.

    Cameron will never appeal outside of Tory ranks and Millibland doesn’t even appeal inside Labour ones. This should have left oodles of room for Clegg, but going back to Tim’s article, the “No more broken promises” thing set against a picture of him with the pledge will be used and abused as long as he’s leader. The Tories have already done it in the AV campaign and you can bet Labour have the posters already designed…..

  • Its good to see thoughtful and constructive engagement from whatever angle. Ths is the very essence of what we, as Liberals are (or should be) about. I’ve never been a fan of the “evil Tories” school of thought; it’s lazy, and its sterotyping – which should be anathema to Liberals.

  • ” “No more broken promises” thing set against a picture of him with the pledge will be used and abused as long as he’s leader. The Tories have already done it in the AV campaign and you can bet Labour have the posters already designed…..”

    Not that Labour have ever broken any election pledges, oh no …

  • @Tabman
    “Not that Labour have ever broken any election pledges, oh no …”

    Shed loads but you know that’s not how it works. The Tories no more taxes and Labour’s no top up fees both cost them dear with floating voters. The difference is that Clegg based the campaign on an end to broken promises, on being different and whatever the rights or wrongs it is an open goal the Tories have already shot at and even Millibland cannot miss.

  • Geoffrey Payne – I agree the system is wrong, but go away and look at the actual numbers of votes her governments got. She was getting low 40s of a turnout in the high 70s; not, for example, the majority Blair got in 2005 of 36% of a 60% turnout! So an awful lot of people voted for her and you can’t dismiss that. Her problem was that after 3 election wins she got to believe the hype.

    1979 – 13,697,923
    1983 – 13,012,316
    1987 – 13,760,935

    2005 – 9,552,436 (Blair)
    2010 – 10,703,654 (Cameron)

  • Keith Browning 7th Mar '12 - 1:40pm

    When did this idea that manifestos meant something and election promises had to be kept?

    It certainly wasn’t around in Thatcher’s era.

    Coincidently I left my job in teaching after five years and started a job in industry the very same week Maggie was elected in 1979. I was away from home so I couldn’t vote for her but I would have.

    There were no promises just an ideology, which said the archaic ways of industrial practice had to be removed and replaced with something that was fit for Britain in the 20th century. Much of industry had not recovered after WW2 and many of the factories and working practices were 1920s in origin.

    I was enthused because the old guard seem to have been removed. We had a woman, which was novel, and someone who believed that the individual was important, not the Trade Union or the Old Boys Club of the Public Schools. That inspired a generation in similar fashion to Blair did in 1997.

    The battles over the coming years were horrific and there might have been a better way to remove men from scrabbling around in mouseholes in the ground. Scargill was wrong and so was Thatcher, but it had to be done somehow. I quickly turned Green and was alongside Prince Charles being one of the early adopters of the blindingly obvious – we were screwing up the planet. Green became Lib Dem as they went as crazy as Maggie did herself.

    The ‘little Englanders’ certainly weren’t fans of Maggie in 1979, and I would think most of the elderly Tories were very sceptical. They only signed up during the Falklands War, and really her ‘old school Tory’ image stems from that one event.

    Maggies children should be running Britain today, but the last of the grammar school brigade have been ousted by the ‘loads of money’ shower. No morals or any thought for anyone else. Yes they hold the vast majority of places in Parliament today.

    My generation who invented and developed most of the things that make life the way it is today, have been usurped by the wheeler dealers from the money markets. Gordon Brown was the worst example of my era possible, but he is used as the reason why we need to have lots of kids running the country.

    My first industry job was to replace a man who had been there for 25 years. He hadn’t retired, he had been promoted at the age of 60. He was the youngest of a team of eight managers!!

    How life has changed.

  • @bazzasc I won’t vote Lib Dem at the next election because it’s a clear choice in my area between Tories and Labour and I never want Labour to get into power ever again. The nanny statism and the economic mess being just 2 reasons for this. However, IF I were in an area where the fight was between Labour and the Lib Dems then I would happily vote for Lib Dems over the Tories and Labour. In my ideal world we would have a small Tory majority and Lib Dems as official opposition. Labour would be relegated to 3rd party status and even that’s more than they deserve. I genuinely admire the Lib Dems for stepping up to the plate and entering government. You guys haven’t shied away from tough decisions and although I disagree with your party’s leadership on Europe and things like that, I think in general you have some great ideas and you give the Coalition the heart it badly needs. I used to think Cameron had changed our party, but then I hear some right wing views and it just reminds me that without you guys, we’d be making big mistakes on big issues. What’s happening and going wrong with the NHS would also be happening in other areas without your influence.

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