Tony Greaves writes: Coalition, Government and the Lords

We are in a new situation which started with the coalition being negotiated. Nobody in the political parties had thought it through. It had to be made up as they went along and it is still being made up, week by week, month by month. It has had a major effect on the resulting policies. It has also had an effect on the ongoing processes of government.

The coalition was put together in five days. An important lesson must be that future coalition-building in this country after an election really ought to take place at a slightly more measured pace, and to take the 10 or 14 days which everybody else in the world expects as a minimum. The five days led to two defects. First, the agreement was not comprehensive. What was in was often too detailed, not always properly thought out. In some cases the political implications of a quick fix were not thought through at all, notably on tuition fees which have proved so harmful to this party.

Secondly, there was no time to think seriously about the processes of government. The result was the attempt to fit a two-party Government into a one-party mould. A great deal of the problems have resulted from the application of procedures, customs and practices which have been designed for a single-party Government when we now have two parties governing together.

Since then processes have evolved and are still evolving but they have not gone far enough. They still do not really accept that we have two parties from different traditions with different philosophies-a centre-left liberal party and a centre-right conservative party. I believe that the internal processes of government must be more open and transparent. Both parties will benefit if their positions are better understood in the country and if the inevitable compromises and trade-offs which are taking place day by day, week by week and month by month are much clearer to people.

We need to explain the discussions that are going on and the results of those discussions. It is foolish to pretend that detailed agreement exists between the two parties on every issue. It is foolish to see Liberals going on programmes such as “Newsnight”, defending Tory policies in detail that we all know they do not really support, and vice versa. The foreword to the coalition agreement states that “we will extend transparency to every area of public life”. It is time that it started at the top.

People say this is difficult because we live in a media environment which is one of the worst in the democratic world. The media observe policy differences and call it a split; they observe policy discussions and call it a row; they observe compromises and call it a betrayal; they observe trade-offs and call it broken promises; they observe a refusal to agree with consultation responses and call it stubborn dogma; they observe changes as a result of consultation and call it a U-turn; and if they do not see any of these things they invent them. But that is the media we have and the difficulties it causes should not get in the way of what should be done.

A real problem is that in all these things the Opposition cannot resist chasing the cheap headline. They cannot resist pandering to pressure groups who thought they would get a particular policy through but now find that things have changed. But those kinds of attacks undermine a sensible coalition environment.

The Labour party must realise they may be in coalition the next time or the time after that. They must think about it. If there is a new political environment, perhaps the debate needs to change. There have been enough things put forward by this Government which can be rationally and constructively criticised. There is plenty of that to do without descending to silly, childish abuse.

As far as the implications for the House of Lords are concerned, it is absolutely vital that legislation receives detailed and sufficient scrutiny, revision and improvement as a result of constructive and tolerant interchange. That is what the upper house is all about. The Lords works because there is an atmosphere of agreement and tolerance between the different sides of the House.

The Government’s side of the deal is to listen, discuss, negotiate and accept some changes, even if they are not completely thrilled about them. The deal on the Opposition is that, in return, they do not abuse the procedures; they do not destroy the ability of the House to scrutinise, revise and improve; and, in particular, they have a duty not to make self-regulation impossible. On the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill this deal has broken down. We can argue about who is right and who is wrong. I say the Opposition are to blame, but it has broken down and both sides of the House have got to repair it. If we do not, it will become impossible for the Lords to carry out their duties on all kinds of new Bills.

We Liberal Democrats have a pivotal role in that we possess loyalty and support for the coalition. We are not going to undermine its fundamentals – we are in it for five years, so do not think anything different. But we are still an autonomous group within the coalition with a distinctive perspective on politics. And we are committed to the proper role of this House. Those three matters cause us great difficulties at times because they conflict in all kinds of ways. I hope other parts of the House will understand what we are trying to do and help us to do it because it will help the Opposition and the House if we are able to play that role.

Tony Greaves is a Liberal Democrat peer. He has himself kindly edited his speech given to the House of Lords during a Coalition Government debate.

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46 Comments

  • toryboysnevergrowup 25th Jan '11 - 11:01am

    “The coalition was put together in five days. An important lesson must be that future coalition-building in this country after an election really ought to take place at a slightly more measured pace, and to take the 10 or 14 days which everybody else in the world expects as a minimum.”

    No – the lesson in the future is that all parties have to be a lot more open about what they would do in such situations before the election so that the electorate can have some say.

  • *Of course, the Lib Dems were clear – negotiate, try to get as much of our manifesto in as possible (though maybe not hard enough on some things) – and let the party with the most votes and most seats get first dibs on negotiation.

    The difficulty with what you suggest is that everything is dependent on the outcome of an election that is decided seat by seat. Until we get PR, you cannot vote for a ‘preferred coalition option’, and even then you’d have to be second guessing about 30 million other people…

  • Toryboy, even in countries with long traditions of coalition, parties do not enter elections saying “when we lose……” so it is naive to expect otherwise, particularly when the absence of any kind of PR makes the outcome unpredictable.

    From the outset, LDs said they would negotiate with the largest party in line with the electorates vote, and that’s what happened.

    Having fought Tories since the 60s, it’s uncomfortable knowing we are supporting them in government but frankly, if the first post war coalition has to be with the Tories, then if we can make THAT work, then a future LD/Labour coalition should acheived so much more

  • Although I can agree with much of what is in this post, I also see a great deal of (forgive me) wishful thinking. Recognising how the media does indeed distort, but then saying it “should not get in the way of what should be done” is, I have to say, naive.

    If ministers disagreed with each other in TV interviews, perhaps even facing off against each other – essentially the end of collective responsibility – it would be an unsightly and god-awful mess. A blow-by-blow account of the inner tussles of decision-making, with everyone able to keep an accurate scorecard of who has won or lost each policy battle would be a disaster, not an improvement.

    A friend suggested to me that perhaps in future the leader should not take ministerial office but instead be able to stand outside the government so that s/he can occasionally make party differences clear. A better idea, I think, than His Lordship’s prescription.

    I think the experience of coalition is forcing us to deal with many of the pressures and stark realities with which the other two parties have been dealing for years. We, dare I say it, growing up.

  • ‘A great deal of the problems have resulted from the application of procedures, customs and practices which have been designed for a single-party Government when we now have two parties governing together.’

    I hear that an awful lot from Lib Dems (many of whom have views that I greatly respect), but I’m afraid it’s received wisdom rather than true. Government and politics are not the same thing. Many Lib Dems give the impression that they aspire to ‘office’ rather than ‘government.’ That is power, but with none of that dodgy collective responsibility/accountability thing. Cabinet government is not some nicety. What is being suggested here is not far from saying how terrible it is having an opposition. Individual ministerial responsibility compels resignation and there is nothing wrong with that where an individual’s politics mean they can not support a government line. It is probably entirely correct to say that the formation of the Coalition was unsatisfactory, but I think that the same problems would have been faced even if the agreement had taken a month to complete. If LD ministers want more of their policies implemented, they can argue in Cabinet for that.

    What is reflected in the Coalition Agreement is not Conservative policy or Lib Dem policy – it is Coalition policy. It is not party policy, but government policy. These procedures are no different than those that confronted the ‘tory wets’ under Thatcher or the Eurosceptics under Major. If anything, Cable’s comments about his nuclear option show up the problem that some LDs seem to have in understanding the difference between office and government. He does not get to bring the government down, he can abrogate himself from office and join the back benches where he can practice politics rather than government. The LD party as a whole could, I suppose trigger an election by withdrawing from the Agreement, but I dread to think that that would lead.

    Similarly, I don’t think some people quite realize how serious more ‘open debate’ between the Conservatives and LDs could be. The moment a LD minister sets out alternative spending plans, the next question will be, ‘do you disagree with Coalition deficit reduction strategies?’ That would be followed by, ‘do you think the markets can have confidence in this Coalition or are you undermining it?’ Likely then followed by, ‘do you think the question marks raised by your party over the deficit reduction plan are putting the AAA rating at risk?’ Lastly followed by, ‘do you agree with Mr Milliband’s preference for deferred cuts?’ I am open to the argument that the media overcooks it, though I think that the public see that. Splits within the government are not in themselves a problem, nor anything novel. The idea that a junior party can bring to a halt the machinery of government and the economic policy it signed up to at the Coalition Agreement (passing through triple lock in the process) six months previously is odd to say the least. Where is the stability in that?

    As a personal observation, I believe a better model for Coalition is that the smaller party should control wholesale one or two ministries – none of this arrangement where there are a relatively large number of junior ministers across government. By having one ministry and getting one or two really big concessions a real impact can be made. At the moment, the current Coalition is, brutally, scraps from the rich man’s table. The current problems the Lib Dems face are not the fault of established government conventions but how the party isn’t working them effectively.

    Isn’t it odd that the Conservative Party seems better at the New Politics than anyone else?

  • Much as I hate to agree with toryboynevergrowsup (…no, really…. ), there is something to be said for all parties being more open about what would/will happen in the event of a hung parliament.

    I don’t buy the line that “parties don’t plan for failure”, and it will now be even harder for them to justify this stance after the events of last May. It’s all very well to say Clegg and his negotiation team (such as it was) had to wait and see what the outcome was, but it is hardly rocket science to draw up a fairly detailed shopping list of what is and isn’t acceptable before the event.

    Would such a list be negotiable? Of course. But, there ought equally to be some lines in the sand.

    I have some sympathy for much of what Tony greaves says…but then he goes and spoils it by saying:

    “We Liberal Democrats have a pivotal role in that we possess loyalty and support for the coalition. We are not going to undermine its fundamentals – we are in it for five years, so do not think anything different. ”

    What on earth for? Surely it is the logic of coalition politics that you remain “loyal” only insofar as the coalition serves the purposes of the party and the national interest? Conditions may change, and to maintain that you will never, under any circumstances, withdraw from this (or indeed any other coalition) is an untenable position.

    You can hardly expect to be taken seriously as an “honest broker” by the Opposition, whether on reform of the Lords or any other matter, if the Oppostion and many others suspect you of outwardly supporting policies with which you actually disagree.

    This goes to the heart of the current debate about this Coalition; it is not that people disagree with compromise or coalitions in principle, it is that they feel this particular Coalition is ill-conceived, is following the wrong path, and in many respects is seen as a “love-in”, rather than a true partnership. The relationship looks phoney to many people because it IS phoney, and no amount of spinning that there was no alternative, or that Camron isn’t that bad is going to convince sceptical voters otherwise.

  • Simon McGrath 25th Jan '11 - 12:31pm

    “In some cases the political implications of a quick fix were not thought through at all, notably on tuition fees which have proved so harmful to this party”
    Surely the problem was the the Coalition Agreement position (abstention) was not adhered to. Vince decided to go down the unwise route of making the policy fairer without considering the political implications.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 25th Jan '11 - 12:32pm

    “even in countries with long traditions of coalition, parties do not enter elections saying “when we lose……” so it is naive to expect otherwise”

    But they say an awful lot more about preferered partners and what they will and will not negotiate.

  • So, this coalition “works” does it. I profoundly disagree. I voted for the Lib Dems because I genuinely admired lots of their (pre-election) policies. I could not have foreseen (and I think thousand if not millions of voters feel like me) that the Liberal Democrats were so desperate to be “in government” that they would tear up their manifesto in order to prop up a righ-wing Tory government enacting policies that are diametrically opposed to all that the Lib Dem claim to believe in. I will never vote LibDem again for two very good reasons (1) I just don’t trust anything they say, and (2) I suspect they would do exactly the same again – just to be for the privilege of being in government.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 25th Jan '11 - 12:55pm

    It is worth noting that the Tories did start planning for a coalition before the election. They did this in secret and had already worked out most of their negotiating lines beforehand. And it is perhaps no surprise that the Tories have got most of what the leadership wants out of the election. But is it really healthy for democracy if such planning is done in secrecy and without any scrutiny by the electorate.

    It is of course not possible to accuse my own party of keeping its planning for a coalition secret – since I have yet to see any evidence of their being any such plan, secret or otherwise.

    Some have pointed out that the LibDems said they would negotiate with the largest party which is quite correct – but it was not just many Tories who thought it inappropiate when the LibDems started to negotiate with the Labour Party – or more correctly used such negotiations as a lever in their talks with the Tories, including Clegg’s rather pathetic attempt to stop Brown going to the Palace.

  • Mostly I totally agree with this post.

    “The Labour party must realise they may be in coalition the next time or the time after that. They must think about it. ”

    I think the Lib Dems also need to realise this and stop positioning themselves as semi-permanent ConDems. There is a very real chance that new coalitions will need to be formed post May and the current retoric from all sides is going to make this very hard.

    “The Government’s side of the deal is to listen, discuss, negotiate and accept some changes, even if they are not completely thrilled about them.”

    Something the Government benches have been utterly unwilling to do. They have set this up as a stand off from the start. My view is that this is two completely seperate Bills, but, if it cannot be split then concessions need to be identified. With the complete lack of the type of pre-legislative scrutiny such a major constitutional changes really require half of this Bill is poor rushed legislation.

    The AV vote is simple. The whole Country get their say and therefore get to decide how we elect MP’s. The reduction in MP numbers, the very real possibility that enourmous unweildy constituencies will be created (making it hard to the point of impossible for voters to attend surgeries), the fact that registered voters rather than population will be used, all are points that require much more in depth investigation.

  • @toryboysnevergrowup
    “It is of course not possible to accuse my own party of keeping its planning for a coalition secret – since I have yet to see any evidence of their being any such plan, secret or otherwise.”

    Listen to what Gordon Brown had to say before the elections in this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4UvqmZlaAPY and it would appear that he knew that the LDS and Cons were going to form a coalition.

  • Simon McGrath – Thing is, it is not at all clear to me that the Coalition Agreement was not followed on HE fees. Page 32 of the Agreement says,

    ‘If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.’

    Note:
    a) This says MPs, nothing is said about the Lords, so the abstention idea seems not to cover the entire Lib Dem whip.
    b) The words are IF the Lib Dems can not accept. If the response is something that Lib Dems feel they CAN accept, then there is no clause for abstention in that case. Also, this talks about, ‘Liberal Democrat MPs’ not, ‘ALL Liberal Democrat MPs,’ so this is not catch-all in the language. Or at least that is how I read it, I’d be interested in any conflicting views.
    c) Note that this is also on the assumption that the Government considers itself under no obligation to accept Browne. The idea that this was a binding Labour commissioned report is explicitly contradicted in the CA.

    As I say, I’d be very interested in any other interpretations, but it is not clear to me that the Coalition Agreement set out a position of Parliamentary Lib Dem abstention. There may well be things to be critical about, but I don’t think anyone breached the CA on fees.

  • Simon McGrath 25th Jan '11 - 1:28pm

    @Duncan – can’t really see the point about the Lords – presumably just an oversight.
    Browne’s report was unaccep[atable – until Vince decided to ‘improve’ it.

  • Simon McGrath – It could be an oversight on the Lords, but if so it is a big one because is seems to exclude the Lords from any agreement on whipped votes if need be.

    Second, the response to Browne (remember that is what the CA talks about, not Browne itself) might have been unacceptable to many Lib Dems, but my point was that the CA’s language did NOT anywhere say the Lib Dems would abstain en masse. As far as I can see, at least in the CA any Lib Dem could find the response acceptable and vote for it.

    On my reading, the CA was not breached – though I do appreciate other views.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 25th Jan '11 - 2:48pm

    Duncan

    The wording was “if Liberal Democrats cannot accept” not “Liberal Democrat MPs cannot accept”. I didn’t notice a change in the policy of the Liberal Democrats following the Browne review – although perhaps Clegg and LibDem MPs are now able to enforce policy positions on the Party. I also notice that the payroll Lib Dems had already been threatened prior to the LibDem MPs agreeing their position.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Jan '11 - 2:56pm


    No – the lesson in the future is that all parties have to be a lot more open about what they would do in such situations before the election so that the electorate can have some say

    In part, yes – it’s always been the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors who were expected to answer the question “Who would you join in coalition?” whereas, as the commentariat can now can see though most thinking LibDems knew it all along, what coalition is formed depends just as much, maybe more so, on which other party is most willing to form one.

    In part, no, however. The problem is the journos always want “yes/no” answers, but it doesn’t work like that. What sort of coalition is formed depends to some extent on the election results, so it can’t be planned in advance. Giving “yes/no” answers runs the risk of having to deal with a situation you hadn’t predicted, which ends up with you being accused of “going back on promises” if your act yes when you said no (or vice versa), or having to do something silly or try to do something impossible if you try to stick to the yes or no. We know this very well with the tuition fees issues.

    The 2010 situation was particularly difficult because a variety of circumstances all forced us into a coalition with the Tories where our influence was fairly small. We’ve suffered since because we haven’t been able to admit this openly, because one of those circumstances was our own poor performance during the election campaign resulting in the surprise disappearance of what was (not entirely accurately) support attributed to “Cleggmania”.

  • @ Matthew Huntbach

    “The 2010 situation was particularly difficult because a variety of circumstances all forced us into a coalition with the Tories where our influence was fairly small. We’ve suffered since because we haven’t been able to admit this openly, because one of those circumstances was our own poor performance during the election campaign …..”

    Whilst the performance was indeed disappointing, the LD’s gained almost 39% of the votes for the Coalition parties. It would hardly be unreasonable to have expected considerably more influence within the Coalition in return for this level of support, both directly in terms of government posts, and more generally in terms of control of the direction of policy. The relative number of seats gained should never have been accepted by any self respecting advocate of electoral reform as an excuse for the under-achievement of those who negotiated the Coalition deal.

    Supporters of the Coalition naturally have an interest in pedalling the line that the LD’s were in a weak position, whereas in fact you can equally argue that Cameron was in a weak position. The alternative of a minority Tory administration in hock to the carpet biters on the right gave the LD’s much more leverage than the bunglers in control of the negotiation realised.

    Lords reform, reduction in the number of MP’s, and the AV referendum are all cases in point; the LD’s should have made immediate progress towards a fully elected Lords, insisted on the reduction of the number of MP’s being dealt with seperately, and insisted on STV. Their failure to achieve progress on major issues, and abject performance since May only underline their ill-preparedness in the run up to the GE and the amateurishness of their negotiating team during the fateful 5 days of May.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 25th Jan '11 - 4:29pm

    “The problem is the journos always want “yes/no” answers”

    That doesn’t mean you have to give them in all circumstances. The electorate as a whole are perhaps more sophisticated, and they certainly will be in future given their experience of how the present coalition has worked.

  • David Allen 25th Jan '11 - 5:14pm

    “We Liberal Democrats have a pivotal role in that we possess loyalty and support for the coalition. We are not going to undermine its fundamentals – we are in it for five years, so do not think anything different. ”

    Sorry, but wagging our fingers and telling people what they should think is not working. The bookies’ odds on an early election are short because the punters can see that the Coalition is a disaster for the Lib Dems.

    Oddly enough, I suspect Cameron and Clegg’s best chance of holding the show together would be to announce a major renegotiation to update the terms of the Coalition Agreement. If instead they try to hold the lid on the pressure cooker, it will eventually blow.

  • Who’s kidding who?

    Five days discussions? They were holding secret discussions for months before the GE on how to bring it about and how policies would need to be dropped or changed to accommodate each other and draw up a coalition agreement.

  • @Matthew Huntbach who said: ‘a variety of circumstances all forced us into a coalition with the Tories’

    No one forced the LibDems into a coalition except their thirst for power. They could have entered a confidence and supply arrangement or refused any arrangmenet and pointed out that the British public had failed to give an electoral mandate to any partner and also hadn’t given any mandate for a coalition and therefore a fresh electtion would need to be held.

    Going into a coalition was the least principled of the alternatives.

  • @Steve Way who said: “The Labour party must realise they may be in coalition the next time or the time after that. They must think about it. ”

    Are you joking Steve – the British public already have had a bellyfull of coalitions and they won’t make the same mistake at the next GE which, in any case, will be a straight fight between Labour and Tories. The AV referendum will fail and diappear from the scene for 10/15 years and the LibDems will either cease to exist or be a rump for a decade.

    The only good thing is that the LibDem right wing will join the Tories at some stage so there is a light at the end of the tunnel in that moderate LibDem members can reclaim their party and the sooner they do this the sooner they will start to rebuild the respect of UK voters.

  • David Allen – For what it’s worth, I think that you are exactly right about renegotiating the Coalition Agreement, but I can’t for a moment see how it is practical.

    For a start, the Conservatives would need to agree and, unless they thought that they could get an even better deal it is not going to happen. Secondly, where would that leave the Lib Dem party machinery. The triple lock was meant to sort all that out – are we saying that our safety mechanism and democracy has failed within a year? Let’s not forget, the only people who have voted on the CA are the people in the triple lock. Lastly, what about the constitution? This to me sounds like withdrawal and ordinarily that would mean an election.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with what you say and I really think that the wagging finger has got to stop because it is starting to look like we think there should be no opposition. It’s just that I can’t possibly see how to renegotiate without any sort of election mandate. Worst case is an even worse Lib Dem deal than at present – I can’t honestly say the party is in a stronger position now than it was in May.

  • Simon McGrath 25th Jan '11 - 5:43pm

    @ecoJon
    “Five days discussions? They were holding secret discussions for months before the GE on how to bring it about and how policies would need to be dropped or changed to accommodate each other and draw up a coalition agreement.”
    fascinating, can you give us your sources please?

  • David Allen 25th Jan '11 - 5:56pm

    Duncan,

    “For a start, the Conservatives would need to agree”

    They won’t do that unless and until they can see mayhem in the Lib Dem ranks and MPs defecting or threatening. Then they might do it out of self-preservation, and indeed grant us a better deal, if only by slowing the pace of right-wing reform. They would, of course, also consider the alternative option of a cut-and-run election – though they would probably not go for that right now, as they would be likely to lose.

    The best way to cause the requisite mayhem would be for us to express outrage at something they are proposing to do. The tripling of tuition fees would have made a good sticking point! That way, we would grasp the moral high ground, favouring the renegotiate-option rather than the cut-and-run option.

    Sadly, we are likely to take an opposite approach, and cause mayhem at a bad time, for example when we lose half our councillors next May. This will not help us negotiate a fairer deal, but with our outstanding tactical nous, that’s probably what we shall do.

  • @EcoJon
    You should have looked at my comment more closely. I was quoting from the original post regarding Labour and coalitions not making a statement.

  • Paul Griffiths 25th Jan '11 - 7:28pm

    Wisdom has been defined by some as knowing exactly the right thing to do, even in novel situations. But such wisdom is rare. I agree with Lord Greaves that the Coalition partners are often making it up as they go along. But as the comments above show, there are risks to the Lib Dems from being too “submissive” and too “divisive”. A period of trial and error seems the most likely outcome.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jan '11 - 10:39am

    EcoJon

    No one forced the LibDems into a coalition except their thirst for power. They could have entered a confidence and supply arrangement

    As I have pointed out on many occasions, “supply and confidence” would have meant voting for the Tory budget with all its spending cuts (“supply”), and voting for any other Tory policy that the Tories or Labour decided to make us vote for by labeling it a “confidence” issue if it didn’t get through (“confidence”).

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jan '11 - 10:47am

    Andy

    Whilst the performance was indeed disappointing, the LD’s gained almost 39% of the votes for the Coalition parties. It would hardly be unreasonable to have expected considerably more influence within the Coalition in return for this level of support, both directly in terms of government posts, and more generally in terms of control of the direction of policy. The relative number of seats gained should never have been accepted by any self respecting advocate of electoral reform as an excuse for the under-achievement of those who negotiated the Coalition deal

    Sure, you know that, I know that. But look at the NO2AV campaign and see what they’re saying. Can you suppose a country where people who wan to govern and put themselves up as serious politcians sign up to that innumerate and illogical crap is one where a nice mathematical argument like yours is going to work?

    Sorry, but to try and push that line will get the Murdoch press and the Telegraph and the rest singing “Lah, lah, lah, we’re not listening to your fancy mathematical arguments, it’s all clever clogs nonsense, no-one else understands your argument because everyone hates maths”. I see no sign whatsoever that the Conservatives ever even think of us in terms of our vote share rather than our seat share, and sadly they have their propaganda merchants spreading that line for them across the country. And they cleverly engineered it so that when one of us had a bit of say on letting the chief right-wing propaganda merchant in the world take even more dominance of our media, they found a way to get rid of him from that role.

  • @ Matthew Huntbach

    People in general may indeed have little appetite for statistics, but that’s no excuse for the LD’s following suit. Negotiating strategy was in their hands; it was in the end their supine acceptance that they were in a weak position that led directly to the shambles evident now, including the problems relating to Lords reform mentioned by the OP.

    The rabid right wing press is not as influential as you think; people in general take it with a pinch of salt, and generally a lot less seriously than those in the Westminster bubble. The fact remains that irrespective of the Tory propaganda, the LD’s caved in… Cameron no doubt couldn’t believe his luck.

    As for Uncle Vince, your analysis is flawed: he wasn’t gotten rid of by the right wing press, he was (deservedly) hoist on the petard of his own hubris and lack of judgement. With people of that calibre in charge, no wonder the LD’s are haemorrhaging support.

    Let’s face it, the reason the LD’s aren’t in a much better position is that they blinked first during the 5 days of May. They were comprehensively outmanoeuvred by the Tories. The only real reasons for this poor outcome are poor planning before the event, and the lack of experience/skill of those at the negotiating table.

  • Paul Griffiths 26th Jan '11 - 1:52pm

    @ Andy

    If you really believe that the Conservatives would have accepted (for example) a demand for STV from the Liberal Democrats, there is nothing that I or Matthew or probably anyone else could say that will change your mind. But I think you are seriously overestimating the Tories’ desire to avoid another General Election.

  • @ Paul Griffiths

    It is at least possible; I think the point is that they weren’t pushed hard enough. I realise that many (including most pro-Coalition people on here and in the party) accept the conventional wisdom that the LD’s got the most they could, and made the best of a bad job because they were in a weak position.

    However, that is only one of many possible outcomes, and was in my view by no means inevitable (still less the best) of the various courses open to the LD’s. STV is only one area, and you may be right that it would have been a price the Tories would not have paid….. but they may have been prevailed upon to include it in the options for the referendum.

    We hear a lot about the weakness of Clegg and/or the LD’s negotiating position. We hear a lot less about the weakness of Cameron’s position.

    Referring back to the issues in the OP, once again reform of the upper chamber as well as reduction of the number of MP’s should have been amongst the prices of agreeing the Coalition in the first place. What realistic alternative did the Tories have? A minority government which could have been voted down at will.

    Why on earth do you think that having no major cabinet positions was an achievement? Only the AV referendum looks like a substantive achievement….but it will turn to ashes in the event people vote no on the back of the Coalition’s collapsing support.

  • David Allen 26th Jan '11 - 4:51pm

    The bargaining strength of the LDs versus the Tories has little to do with the 39% of votes. It has to do with real things which govern the balance of power, such as: number of MPs; level of risk incurred in walking away if you don’t get what you want; and, whether you merely dislike your proposed partner’s policies on e.g. snark hunting, or whether you are actually horrified by their policies and can lead a public revolt if you choose to do so.

    Nobody can quantify these things, or even judge them terribly well, which is why strength of character and ability to drive a good bargain also come into it. The Tories enjoyed themselves fretting with fake nerves about the bond markets and Greece, and thereby bouncing us into a lot less than we should have got from them.

    Paul is right, STV would be anathema to the Tories. Paradoxically, it might therefore have been a good tactic to demand it. The Tories might well then have come up with big alternative concessions, in order to persuade us to drop STV!

    On the other hand Cameron would be absolutely terrified of a snap election, which would probably see him out of office and out of the Tory leadership within the month! That is our bargaining strength NOW, and we could still use it, if we had the “shadow-chancellor” to do so!

    The downside, of course, is that Cameron might call our bluff and see us wiped off the electoral map. However, if we don’t do something, we may very well flatline at 10% support all the way to 2015. Whereas if we pick our battleground with care, and show a bit of fight, we might regain some of our lost popular support. Especially if we have the sense to change leadership as well.

  • @ David Allen

    Exactly! I suspect the lack of ambition has much to do with the poor outcome, and that isn’t just down to the 5 days in May, it goes much further back.

    What I find hard to understand on this site particularly is the slavish devotion exhibited by so many people to the current party line. It must (surely?) be a worry to those left within the party who oppose, or even feel queasy about, the Coalition, that the prospect of using the bargaining strength referred to in your post seems pretty remote?

    I think the flatline at 10% until 2015 is looking more and more likely; I don’t see where the party thinks it will recover the number of votes they have lost over the past 8 months.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jan '11 - 5:25pm

    Andy

    The rabid right wing press is not as influential as you think; people in general take it with a pinch of salt, and generally a lot less seriously than those in the Westminster bubble. The fact remains that irrespective of the Tory propaganda, the LD’s caved in… Cameron no doubt couldn’t believe his luck.

    I was not there in the negotiations, neither were you. I have been VERY critical of the leadership of the LibDems since the coalition was formed. However, having experienced balance of power situations in local government, I do know how difficult it can be, and how the tendency always is for the smaller party to get the blame for the difficult things but not the credit for the good things. Cameron was in a strong position in the negotiations because the alternative was that he’d form a minority government, and call another general election in 6 months time pleading with the electorate to “give us a majority – everything that is going wrong is due to us not having one”. Of course, in those 6 months there’d be no major cuts, but Cameron would make sure there was a bit of a run on the pound etc to scare people.

    A lot of those criticising the LibDems for joining the coalition do seem to be very naive, it’s difficult to say more as mostly (unlike me) they won’t give their real names. But my guess is they lack sufficient real world experience to appreciate the difficulties. However, there is no need for anyone who supports Labour to go into “what-iffery”. The balance in Parliament now is the same as it was in May, so if Labour claim something different could have been formed then, them all they have to do is offer it. They don’t because they know they can’t. So – case closed.

    Regarding the power of the right-wing press, I have fought and won three times a ward where THE Sun newspaper probably had more sales than all the others combined. You could tell what people read because there were open green recycling bins, and in every other one, just about, you’d see copies of THE Sun. I’m afraid fighting that ward really did feel at some times like fighting Rupert Murdoch. THE Sun is a very clever newspaper, drip-drip-drip feeding right-wing propaganda into the veins of the British people under the guise of just being fun, not serious, just a laugh. How many times did I come across THE Sun’s ideology being thrown back at me on the doorsteps by people who did not realise how much they’d been influenced by it? I don’t underestimate it as you do.

  • @ Matthew

    “A lot of those criticising the LibDems for joining the coalition do seem to be very naive, it’s difficult to say more as mostly (unlike me) they won’t give their real names. But my guess is they lack sufficient real world experience to appreciate the difficulties.”

    Nice line in condescension you have there… must have gone down a treat on the doorstep with potential voters? Whether I am as naive as the bunch of duffers who negotiated the Coalition agreement is open to question; I’d say the views of many who oppose the Coalition are probably less naive than believing that this Coalition will be viewed historically as “a good thing”, either for the party or the country.

    You are obviously another of those who makes the lazy assumption that opponent of the Coalition = Labour supporter. the balance may be the same now, but there is less reason for Labour to play ball now, because if a GE were to be held now all the signs point to a Labour majority…. way to go guys, you’ve actually managed to make Labour look electable in a scant 8 months.

    As for your view of the power of the red-top press…. perhaps that might help explain why the LD’s were bounced into a bad deal when scared with a series of bogey men, all of them imaginary. Now tell me again who it is that was naive ..?

  • Paul GriffithsAndy/David Allen – Interesting exchange. I would make four observations.

    1) Whether individual people like what the Coalition is doing, we should never forget that the Coalition Agreement went through the triple lock. This was/is the gold standard for legitimacy and this party voted for the CA – no one else got a vote on it. To go back in less than a year and say that somehow it was all wrong would be very difficult. I simply do not see how the role of the triple lock can be overlooked.

    2) Flatline 10% is a problem. I imagine most Conservative MPs will be looking at whether they have a majority to cash in. If I was a tory MP I would look at the Coalition and wonder exactly whether the Conservatives are actually being weighed down by Coalition partners. And this is before looking at Nick Clegg’s polling. The party has been at 10% in the polls before – the difference is that those numbers are likely to have our Coalition partners taking a very long hard look.

    3) In terms of a snap election I really don’t think that Cameron has that much to lose. Even if this battleground that would see voters all cleave to the Lib Dems actually exists (I struggle to see it) how are we going to make that the focus of politics? Everything right now is on deficit reduction, the rest is an aside.

    4) There is a more general question here about the nature of Coalition. As I mentioned earlier, I prefer the model where the small party takes one or two ministries wholesale and holds its nose on the rest. As a party of government, the Lib Dems need some sort of an obvious, tangible record to stand on. Having lots of ministers spread thinly runs the risks that the party has run afoul of. Lots of people seemed to like the idea of a Coalition, but there didn’t seem to be much of an idea of what it would actually look like.

  • Patrick Smith 26th Jan '11 - 7:57pm

    The `Coalition Agreement’ was the only option on the table but will test the full reach of mutual trust and co-option from two leaders coming together from two political different backgrounds.

    The `Coaliton Agreement’ gives the ecomic context for to forward on an experiment in `New Politics’ that was clearly on the minds of many approving voters, as being worth a go, during the TV Leaders` Debates, when Nick Clegg was talking about Leaders listening to each others` differences.This idea now made real gained the highest respect from the audience.

    The `Coaltion Agreement’ was made pragmatic by the `give and take’ attitude by Clegg and Cameron within a tight limit setting, when Labour had done no homework at all on the likelihood of a `Hung Parliament’ and at present are not seen as being `collegiate’ by themselves.

    As to the time-frame of 5 days being seen as being too short.I would say that the two factors to wind up the `Coaltion Agreement’ in just in 5 days was partly on the fact of a decent long decent piece of homework by L/D negotiators and predicated and underwritten by the `National Deficit’ and the snapping press hounds 24/7.

    I add that Party Manifestos are not proven to be written in stone by any political party in recent history of Labour Governments.

    The L/D `s front office team have had plenty of gifted and talent Ministerial portfolios to sit on the Government Benches and from day one I never doubted the ability of messrs Cable,Huhne, Burstow et al to do a good a job as any.

    As far as different traditions and philosophies are able to be delineated and refined in a `Coalition Agreement’ this is the real nub question that will be speculated much before 2015.

    I would posit that some of the best books on Liberals and Liberalism have been by Lord Hattersley and the William and Ffyon Hague on iconic luminaries including Gladstone,Asquith and Lloyd-George.

    This cross party consensus on what drives Liberal Reformers in Government should be again greatly sped,aided,understood and defended to the hilt and last ditch on civil liberties and `fair votes’ and fair taxes’ and `cleaning up politcs’ as it all forms the principled backbone of the `Coalition Agreement’.

    Nick Clegg has pledged on the Andrew Marr recent interview, to be judged on four important areas namely 1.`Fair Taxes’.2.The `Pupil Premium’.3.Cleaning up Politcs and 4. Banking Reform.

    I add that the the lighting rod for all of this is a sound and stable Economy and Banks lending to small businesses again..

    I disagree with Lord Greaves on his assertion that nuances of policy should be made public.This would help feed the hungry press dogs.

    I believe the balanced Editorials can be written at timely intervals about the benefits/disbenefits of a `Coalition Agreement’ about the two/three years into it .By this time key Liberal reforming policies would be unravelled and the arguments and campaigns won, including the passage of the AV and Constiutional Bill.

  • @ Patrick Smith

    “I believe the balanced Editorials can be written at timely intervals about the benefits/disbenefits of a `Coalition Agreement’ about the two/three years into it .By this time key Liberal reforming policies would be unravelled and the arguments and campaigns won, including the passage of the AV and Constiutional Bill.”

    You appear considerably more sanguine than I am about the LD’s chances of recovering from their current collapse in support. Despite my personal view on this particular deal being spectacularly ill-judged, I don’t want to see the party reduced to a rump. What I find rather odd is the way that some who support the Coalition actually seem quite happy to accept the collapse in support on the almost altruistic line that “it’s the right thing to do” or “it was the only conceivable choice”. Obviously I believe both views to be mistaken.

    You can’t afford to wait until two or three years in – all people will be writing by then is an epitaph for the party, not a paean in praise of it’s selfless decision to immolate itself in the fires of the Coalition.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jan '11 - 10:47pm

    Andy

    Nice line in condescension you have there… must have gone down a treat on the doorstep with potential voters? Whether I am as naive as the bunch of duffers who negotiated the Coalition agreement is open to question; I’d say the views of many who oppose the Coalition are probably less naive than believing that this Coalition will be viewed historically as “a good thing”, either for the party or the country.

    Sorry Andy, you’re the one being condescending here.

    Where have I said that I believe ‘that this Coalition will be viewed historically as “a good thing”’? Because I don’t believe that at all, I believe it will be viewed historically as a disaster.

    Look, here I am, probably more explicitly anti-Clegg than anyone else who is a member of the LibDems and who posts here, laying out my hopes that the disaster of this colaition will end up with Clegg kicked out, the right-wing of the Liberal Democrats humiliated, and the party sent firmly in the leftward direction I always wanted it to go, and yet STILL not just you, but others I have tried to talk about these issues with, seem to have me down as some simplistic Clegg fan who believes all the rubbish that man is handing down to us.

    You have COMPLETELY missed my point, but I think your further insults just show you’re too thick even to understand it. Rather than engage in practical politics which acknowleges reality while trying to get us out of here, all you can offer is “Yah booh sucks” insults.

  • David Evans 28th Jan '11 - 7:54pm

    A well considered and argued view from Tony. These things are never as easy as we would like to imagine. On balance I think most would own up to making a bad misjudgement on Tuition fees when the CA was voted on. This is the weakness of the “Triple Lock”.
    Step 1: The leadership negotiate and come up with a deal, the full detail of which only they know, which is presented as “This is the best we can do,” – take it or leave it.
    Step 2: Everyone has to get together in a hurry, so those with a life outside politics are under represented compared to the professionals who are much closer to 100% present.
    Step 3: Lots of discussions are held, but there are only two options and starting from the centre (who believe acceptance is the best/only choice because they negotiated it) support grows through the professional staff, and on to the delegates.
    Step 4: Something that should have been a fundamental red line is missed in the rush. That’s where we are now and we have to move on.

    However, that doesn’t mean that we accept the new situation as totally unchangeable. A very bad mistake was made and those who argue it must be must be set in stone forever, so that they can pretend that they didn’t mess it up, have to be disabused of that view.

  • @ Matthew Huntbach.

    Since you have such a bee in your bonnet about real names, I’ve used mine.

    As you will see from the evidence of posts above, my earlier posts were referring to Coalition loyalists in general, not you personally. I did not insult you, nor did I see fit to call you “thick” as you so charmingly saw fit to label me.

    I don’t have you down as a simplistic Clegg fan. I do see you (as anyone else who reads the posts can too) as a rather thin skinned individual, who plays the man rather than the ball. No great surprise on this site of course.. it seems to be the default position.

    No doubt being at 8% in the polls has most of them pretty rattled.

  • mark Wilson 30th Jan '11 - 8:07pm

    I have just listened Pinaar’s Politics and this seems to dovetail into Tony’s article. He has asked the question which Lib Dems should both Cheer and Fear. What happens’s next once the Economy recovers. Danny Alexander who was interviewed was being very careful not to answer that question. But he is wrong not to answer this question.
    I think Danny felt that it was important even though the discussion was hypothetical, because he cannot be sure what will happen after the lifetime of this Parliament, to discuss the future is dangerous. He may of felt that it was also diplomatic not to discuss this for fear of upsetting the Right of the Tory Party. But for Lib Dems it is also dangerous not to. If the Tories are going to be allowed free rein to be able to discuss their aspirations i.e future Tax Policy being one example by not allowing the LIb Dems to be able to put forward what their aspirations are, those people who have given the LIb Dems a fair wind up to now will see them merely as an adjunct of the Tory Party. In the proposals that David Laws is putting forward whilst he may have started this discussion within the Lib Dems which Danny Alexander could not, the Lib Dems need to be clear NOW what direction they want to go in.
    David Laws offers only one direction the Lib Dems could go in, but is he speaking for the Lib Dems as to the direction the Lib Dems are actually going in? As a former Lib Dem Member, and Councillor I certainly want to know what I would be voting for voting Lib Dem sooner rather than later.

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