The Autumn 2010 edition of Renewal – a journal of social democracy – sees the Chair of the Social Liberal Forum David Hall-Matthews writing about the formation of the Coalition government from a Lib Dem perspective.
The Liberal Democrats have always believed in coalition government – not just out of necessity, but also on principle. You cannot believe in proportional representation without thinking that rule by consensus is inherently desirable. Perhaps less obviously, if you believe that coalitions make for good politics, you have to be willing to try and find common ground with parties who may not seem to be natural allies. A party that is only willing to form alliances in one direction would have few bargaining chips – and would quickly become an adjunct.
In addition, the process of negotiating a possible coalition itself threw up all manner of surprises. It forced all party leaders to reveal intriguing things about their beliefs and ambitions – as well as their capacities to take their supporters with them – that had not been evident. In that respect, coalition politics has already proved itself to be very good for British democracy. Activists of all parties, in reacting to events, also had to examine what their priorities were. Close political friends suddenly realised that the basis of their allegiance was not certain – that they had different motivations and different taboos. Even more uncomfortably, some long-standing enemies were forced to look beyond the easy demonisation of each other and recognise common ideals.
The process of realignment looks set to last for months, if not years. It is far more complex than how far left or right each party – or individual – is willing to shift. It might take more than one coalition parliament for British politics to re-find its feet. Indeed there will have to be at least one more for it to be established that a coalition government is not the same as a permanent alliance (obvious though that is in many other countries). Strategically, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats should be making quiet efforts throughout this parliament to ensure that a coalition between them is at least possible after the next election. But that will not be easy.
David then goes on to describe the important lessons to be learnt regarding the Conservative and Labour parties as a result of the Coalition negotiations:
Least surprising, perhaps, were the Tories – of whom it has long been said that they will be willing to swallow anything from a leader who delivers power. The unexpected twist was the positive enthusiasm with which David Cameron embraced the possibility of cooperation. His ‘liberal conservatism’ had always seemed acquisitive if not outright phoney, but his stance since the election has been genuinely open-minded in many areas. If he remains the right-wing wolf who wrote the thoroughly nasty 2005 Tory manifesto, he has somehow found a very impressive ovine tailor. His may still turn out to be sheep’s clothing, but it should be acknowledged that it may not. He seems genuinely pleased to be able to use the need to keep Lib Dems onside to face down the far right of his party – which can only be a good thing for the country.
As for Labour, it was not a surprise that they lacked the energy to try and make a difficult ‘progressive’ coalition work, with the arithmetic and media stacked against them, after thirteen increasingly bruising years in government. But there was a more general sense of unwillingness to stay in power too. Unlike the Tories, and despite three extra days, their negotiators went in to meet the Lib Dems almost unprepared.
There follows a raft of lessons for the Lib Dems, including a neat summation of Social Liberalism and its centrality to the party’s ethos:
Like all parties, the Lib Dems are an eclectic bunch of separate interests. Unlike other parties, their coherence has not previously been tested in the furnace of government. Many commentators have emphasised the differences between the Gladstonian economic liberalism invoked in The Orange Book (Marshall and Laws, 2004) and social liberalism, as set out in Reinventing the State (Brack, Grayson and Howarth, 2007). In truth, the two are not incompatible. Indeed both David Laws, setting out his stall in The Orange Book, and David Howarth, in Reinventing the State, are at pains to argue for their compatibility. Laws insists that his goals are social liberal ones, but that the state is not always the best means to achieve them. If Laws is a social liberal, despite co-editing The Orange Book, then surely Howarth is justified in arguing that so is every Liberal Democrat.
Social liberalism emerged from the New Liberalism of T. H. Green and Leonard Hobhouse, which informed the creation of the welfare state between 1908 and 1911, driven by David Lloyd George. But the key political forebears of the modern party are John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge. Liberal Democracy is defined by a concern for fairness – not as opposed to freedom, but as a necessary corollary of it. People are not free to fulfil themselves if constrained by poor education, health, living conditions, poverty or lack of opportunity. For social liberals, it is the raison d’etre of the state to make sure those ‘five giants’ are attacked. Most liberal philosophers since the war have focused on social provision by the state, from John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice to Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom.
Every Liberal Democrat is a social liberal – but some are also economic liberals and some are not. The distinction is therefore subtle but nonetheless real. The key differences are over means rather than ends. Lib Dems are naturally closer to Labour than the Tories because social justice is a higher priority than economic growth and because, on balance, Lib Dems trust the state. But for classical liberals like Laws, the state is only sometimes the best guarantor of people’s rights. Pointing out the failures of Labour’s best efforts to reduce child poverty through central programmes, for example, indeed puts some Lib Dems on the same page as the Conservatives – but also as Frank Field, and arguably in the same public sector reform tradition as Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair. Further, it is widely recognised that in the liberal fight against unchecked power in all guises, the state can sometimes be part of the problem.
David ends with an exploration of how Liberal Democrats can make this Coaltion with the Conservative party work – not jsut for the party but for the country.
Having chosen coalition with the Conservatives over the purism of opposition (and it is fair to say that some activists are unhappy with the notion of being in power per se), the Liberal Democrats nonetheless have a thorny strategic problem. They have to try and do three things at once that are related but also contradictory: maximise their influence on policy, make the coalition work as a stable and coherent government, and retain a distinctive voice in British politics. So far, their greatest success has been in emphasising common ground. It is obviously necessary for a small centre party whose only hope of influence is through coalition to sell the idea of coalition itself to voters. The difference between the Lib Dem vote share on 6 May and their opinion poll ratings the day before represented perhaps a million people who liked the party but feared coalition government. If that can be reversed, Lib Dem electoral prospects will be respectable and the possibility
of an extended era of coalition will be greater. However, in combination with the undeniable personal chemistry between Clegg and Cameron, the apparent coherence of the Coalition government – based on a shared economic liberal philosophy – sticks in social liberal craws as much as it antagonises the Labour Party.
The Liberal Democrats urgently need to start showing how they are different. What they would like to do is publicise their preferred policies before government plans are formed. It has been accepted (perhaps too readily) that the principle of collective respon- sibility applies fully in a coalition, so decisions must be supported once made. However, if the Lib Dem position is clear before that, the public will be able to see which battles they have won and lost – and give credit for their so far insufficiently visible efforts. There are dangers, though, in publicising your losses. A Lib Dem parliamentary committee could end up calling for one thing and then be obliged by the whips to vote for the opposite. On the other hand, if the strategy worked and the media started to highlight the Lib Dem influence in popular policy while blaming the Tories for the nasty bits, the coalition could be fatally undermined. There are signs, though, that the Liberal Democrat leadership is willing to take some risks in order to be distinctive. Tory attacks on Vince Cable’s call to explore the idea of a graduate tax arguably strengthened his position in the debate – though of course they reduced his chances of turning it into concrete policy. Even Nick Clegg’s condemnation of the ‘illegal war in Iraq’ during his first Prime Minister’s Questions was strategic, not accidental.
If the Liberal Democrats succeed in being distinctive, influential and loyal all at once, they have much to gain out of the Coalition. Of course they will be judged on their record in government – and even if they are judged unfairly, that is a better position to be in than any living Liberal can remember. But they have to keep their eyes on a fourth goal too. Like
Labour, they need to prepare a long-term strategy that at least keeps options open. Of course the Lib Dems and Labour cannot negotiate openly, but some quiet diplomacy would be wise. In the current climate, such rapprochement sounds difficult. Once again, the answer may lie in public policy debates outside the realm of government. If the Lib Dems declare where their aspirations differ from the Coalition agreement, or suggest new policy ideas that are not taken up, it would be helpful for them to be considered by Labour. The reverse is also true. Multiple conversations on policy similarity and difference can bloom, without tying either side down.