On Friday 7 May, without pausing for sleep, the Social Liberal Forum started lobbying for a Progressive Alliance – or, failing that, for a Grand Alliance of all parties. It was soon clear that that was what the vast majority of Liberal Democrat members and supporters would have liked. And what the majority of Lib Dem MPs would have preferred.
So, naturally, many of us were disconcerted and disappointed by the outcome. How could we end up sleeping with the enemy? Should we blame Nick Clegg? Should we blame our negotiating team? I say, Balls! Ed Balls, that is, the new Old Labour dinosaur who, in particular, refused to offer a single meaningful thing during our talks with Labour. Not even AV, which was in their manifesto. Do they understand what negotiation is? Heaven help the country if he is their next leader.
Perhaps if we had called for an all party coalition, Labour’s cowardice would have been more public. Not just unfit to govern, but unwilling to try to govern when the going got tough. We need to work overtime to make it clear to voters and the media that they gave us no choice.
While Labour ran away, the real progressive party in British politics was willing to go into the lions’ den and fight for justice where it matters: in government. Where Liberal Democrat ministers can argue for fairness and social justice directly against those who seek to curtail them. Where Liberal Democrat ministers can deliver progressive outcomes. Not everything that we’d like to. But real, significant change.
The Social Liberal Forum called in particular for Lib Dems in coalition to insist on four things:
- Policies to narrow, not widen, the gap between rich and poor – especially in relation to tax policy.
- No cuts to frontline public services or social spending this year.
- Better treatment of asylum seekers.
- And no dilution of the Human Rights Act.
So far the agreement with the Tories doesn’t breach these. But we’ll be watching.
There seem to me to be three kinds of anxiety about this coalition. First that we’ll be swallowed up by the Tories. I just don’t buy it. Our government members are Liberals – they won’t become Tories overnight. I’m willing to trust them to fight from the inside on the key issues. To achieve Liberal goals and prove that coalition works, making the case for proportional representation even more unanswerable.
Second, annoyance that we have made some compromises and sacrificed some particular policies. But do we really want to be a party of purists who actively shun the chance to influence things? Sorry – I believe in PR, which means I believe in consensus politics, which means I believe in compromise, even if it means holding your nose. If you’re only willing to go one way, you won’t be taken seriously in negotiations.
Then there’s concern about outcomes. That’s legitimate. Liberal Democrats will be judged on what we do in government – and so we should be. If we don’t deliver progressive change for Britain, we’ll be punished at the polls. But before that, the Social Liberal Forum will be banging on the door, holding our people to account – as they hold the Tories to account. So come and join us and let’s all work together to make Britain better.