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Lessons of Coalition (14): what do the Lib Dems need to learn from the first 3 years?

August 16, 2013 3:08 PM
By Joe Otten in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

CoalitiobLibDemVoice is running a daily feature, 'Lessons of Coalition', to assess the major do's and don'ts learned from our experience of the first 3 years in government. Reader contributions are welcome, either as comments or posts. The word limit is no more than 450 words, and please focus on just one lesson you think the party needs to learn. Simply email your submission to and copy

Today Joe Otten shares his thoughts.

Government is hard

As it should be. There is an idea that there are easy solutions to all the world's problems that could be delivered if only the right person could be made Prime Minister, and if only they could be kept in touch with the grass roots, and not corrupted by power, or captured by the civil service. And if only the forces for evil, whether they are corporations, trade unions, bosses, newspapers, foreigners, scroungers, bureaucrats, the rich, the poor, the religious, the atheists, do-gooders, scientists, hippies, motorists, etc, could be faced down and kept at bay by strong leadership from the centre.

When this doesn't happen, clearly there has been a massive betrayal, and politicians are all the same. Well maybe there is another party or personality who has not tasted government and will be different.

Politicians frequently encourage this view, it being grander to be a king than a conciliator. Civil servants flatter it too, suggesting they can implement their masters' wishes for change. Yes minister, together we will face down the bureaucrats and deliver this performance management system which will make them more effective.

And yet, if this world existed, it would be terrible. Much more of our lives would be controlled from the centre. Politics would often ride roughshod over your interests and mine, under some governments if not all - it would be little more than chauvanism of one form followed by another.

The reality is that the problems we face in our economy and society do not require conspiracies of one evil group or another to explain. They exist because the advance of peace, freedom, security, equality, prosperity and human rights is something that as a species we are still learning to understand.

I think as liberals we should welcome the fact that change is difficult to work, that checks and balances limit the power of the centre over the individual, and that well meaning policies agreed by a democratic conference can founder on the rocks of closer examination.

Let us not be too quick to blame coalition for problems that are budgetary (and therefore Labour's making), or for the failure to deliver policies that would, rightly or wrongly, be difficult for a majority government to deliver.

We share with the Conservatives a belief (with a different flavour, for sure) in individual liberty, and an opposition to bureaucratic management - the tick box culture beloved by Labour. So why has there not been more progress here? Why haven't teachers, nurses and other professionals been liberated from Labour's time-consuming and soul-destroying illusion of control from the centre? Perhaps it is because of resistance from the civil service, but that is just one reason that change is hard. As it should be.

As a party we have been on a hard slog for decades. I hope we didn't imagine that the hard slog would end when we got into government. Frankly, that is when it begins.

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

David Allen: If It Won't Work, Walk

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