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Lessons of Coalition (13): what do the Lib Dems need to learn from the first 3 years?

August 15, 2013 10:03 AM
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

If It Won't Work, Walk

In 1974, Ted Heath called on Jeremy Thorpe to join the Conservatives in a historic 'anti-socialist' coalition. Thorpe spent a weekend in negotiation, then declared that it could not work. The differences in philosophy and programme were simply too great to bridge. Thorpe had sacrificed the career opportunity of a lifetime on a question of principle. Others, of course, have done things differently.

Ken Clarke spoke on the 2010 election night about the risk of chaos in the bond markets the next morning. It was outrageous bounce tactics. No Liberal Democrat pointed that out. Instead, our own leadership itself used false parallels with Greece to justify a rushed deal. The bond markets stayed calm.

When nothing was signed immediately, Tories queued up to castigate the indecisive Lib Dems. No Lib Dem spokesperson pointed out that, in the rest of Europe, it is well understood that coalitions usually take at least a month to agree, and are all the better for that.

After five days, a detailed agreement was hurried out. It said amongst other things that the Coalition would stop top-down reorganisation of the NHS. Our party did not formally monitor government adherence to the agreement. It was, of course, ignored or twisted out of all recognition whenever it suited the Tories. Finally, Clegg broke the agreement over parliamentary boundaries. The Tories cried foul, rightly pointing out that Clegg had misrepresented the agreed trade-off in that particular area. They pointed out the mote in the Lib Dem eye. Both parties had ignored the beam in the Conservative eye.

Successive Lib Dem leaders had pledged that if ever coalition could be achieved, securing Lib Dem policies would be the priority. Jobs for our boys would not. Then Osborne offered, as he put it, to "pay the top price for the Turkish carpet". On policies? You judge.

The Coalition has achieved little for Britain, apart from the private firms which have gained business in health and education. Our support has halved. Our youth vote has vanished.

We obsessed about our own weakness, the terrible risk that if we didn't make a deal, we might have to fight another election and again come third. We ignored Cameron's weakness, the risk that if he had called another election, he might not have again come first, thus ending his career. We didn't plan, and we didn't hold our nerve.

Not that Clegg is the least bit interested but, just for completeness, let's add a footnote - Labour could also be very hard to deal with. If we meant it about equidistance, we would start some discussions with them now. Any chance?

If it isn't going to work, you have to walk away.

Previously Published:

Stephen Tall: Stronger policy development and campaigning on issues that matter to the public (AKA where's our liberal equivalent of the benefits cap?)

Mark Valladares: Better party communications responding to the realities of governing

Gareth Epps: Government: What's Occurrin?

Nick Thornsby: Making a success of coalition government as a concept

Caron Lindsay: That old "walk a mile in each others' shoes" thing works

Louise Shaw: One member, one vote for all party elections

Mark Pack: The invisible ministers should up their game, or be sacked

Robin McGhee: We should organise ministers better

Rob Parsons: Understand the mechanics of government

Richard Morris: Make the red lines deeper and wider

Bill le Breton: The Open Coalition and Its Enemies

Patrick Murray: Make sure our policies are reflected in our manifesto

Note from the Webmaster

All responses to this series of five articles will be posted on the website and forwarded to Phil.Kowles - Policy Officer for the East Midlands and Lucy Care our representative on Federal Policy Committee