Five things we must never do again

We must never again accept coalition with the Tories - Every time the party has entered into a coalition with the Tories it has come out seriously damaged. The one in the 1930s ended in a three way split and national irrelevance. This one might be worse. It is a near-death experience. We must never do this again. Why does this happen? Largely because we are a party built on values, not on protecting interests, and coalition with the Tories obscures the public's view of our values. We end up looking like a party of manoeuvre, caring only about holding office.

We must never again promote coalitionism - Much worse than entering a coalition is adopting the stance that coalitions are good in themselves because they bring 'stability'. If people want stability they vote Conservative. The final week of the 2015 campaign was ludicrous. Getting supporters to wave placards saying 'Stability' and 'Unity' was not only deeply illiberal (it looked like something out of Vichy France) it was also deeply stupid. It played into the Tories' main strength. A party such as ours, a party that wants change, cannot make stability its main goal.

We must never again push centrism - Saying that we are between the other two gets in the way of saying who we are and what we are for. Worse, it leaves us with a very small group of voters who believe that both the other parties are extreme. For all other voters, our argument reinforces the view that voting for us risks putting into power the people they were against.  That is why we lost seats both to Labour and to the Tories.

We must never again ignore evidence – The party knew Nick was toxic. It knew that 'vote for us because the economy is improving' would not and could not work. But it did nothing.

We must never again fail to have the will to change - The party must never again refuse to change an obviously catastrophic course. It must never again allow itself to be bullied, bribed or bamboozled by a failed leadership into taking no action. Perhaps even more important, it should never again succumb to fatalism, to the argument that overwhelmed much of the party in 2014 that we had set our course and must accept whatever shipwreck came along.

Three things to do now

Clarify our values - We are a party of values or we are nothing. An effective party of values, however, needs to do certain things. The most important is to achieve clarity about its values. Parties that define themselves around collective interests (for example classes and nations) can afford to be vague about their political values – which both Labour and the SNP are. But we can't be vague. Some of our values are clear –  internationalism, protecting individuality and non-conformity, hating bullying and the abuse of power,  promoting environmentalism, protecting civil liberties and a love of democracy not so much because we think it efficient or effective but because it expresses a basic equality of respect for all individuals. But some of our values are not clear. Most significantly, what is our view of economic inequality? Do we, like Nick Clegg in his disastrous August 2010 speech, worry only about social mobility, or do we care about inequality of wealth in itself? I think most members do care about inequality of wealth, especially in its gross modern form. But the party is going to need to say so loudly and clearly.

Find new ways of promoting our values - Many people are now saying that we have to rebuild the party from local level, and especially through local government. But that is not enough. Previous eras of building up local strength too often turned into exercises not in promoting our values but merely in building up our electoral ground game. As we have just seen, a strong electoral ground game is no use against an overwhelming political defeat. We need new ways of promoting our values. My suggestion is that we need to organise the party in a new way, around campaigns that flow from our values, campaigns in which members can actively participate both at local and national levels. These shouldn’t just be clicktivism or public relations exercises. As in a local campaign to get something done, we should set out to make a real difference in the world. An immediate example is that we should organise our members to put pressure on MPs and ministers on the snooper’s charter, an issue on which the government’s small majority might easily fall apart. Similarly we will need campaigns to save the Human Rights Act, to preserve Britain’s place in Europe and, though it might be hard to win an anti-NIMBY campaign, against banning new onshore wind farms. We should also be campaigning against the forthcoming £12 billion benefit cuts and more broadly against state bullying of the vulnerable (something we seemed to have stopped doing recently). As in the original ‘dual approach’ to politics pioneered by the Young Liberals 45 years ago, we should be organising resistance both inside and outside political institutions, co-ordinating the two and encouraging citizens to join together to change policies and attitudes. We could even encourage members to choose topics for campaigns and facilitate campaign groups to emerge from the party. In the end, many members might think of their membership not just in geographical terms but also in terms of the campaigns they take part in.

Rebuild a core vote – One of the most disastrous aspects of the Clegg era was that just at the point the party was starting to develop a loyal core vote – roughly speaking, graduates, prospective graduates and the parents and grandparents of graduates – it launched an all-out attack on those very voters. But those voters are still there and still share our values. In fact, there are too few other people who share our values to make us a viable political force without them. So we have to win them back. Campaigning on issues connected with our values will help, but we also need to think about our policies in terms of values and our prospective core voters. That means a comprehensive audit of our policies to eliminate particularistic elements that have crept in over the years through lobbying or the accidents of geography. It is time for a clear focus on finding the natural supporters of Liberalism wherever they are, and rebuilding the party with them. 


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  • I never accepted any stability need for a Coalition and was not surprised at the resultant disaster. However, I would have accepted a Coalition with the Tories with the acceptance of an offer with a cast iron guarantee for an Act to create PR by STV. Of course the Tories would probably have rejected the offer out of hand. That would have put them in the wrong for having failed to make an agreement for the sake of the nation. We would have been in the clear. If they had given us STV we would have been secure for ever and no disaster.
    The points by David are very good but we need a new values image for the public and maybe even a new name that the less sophisticated public can understand.
  • @zigurds
    I think Tim is saying no coalition without immediate electoral reform, which would certainly be a massive improvement on what just happened and which in practice might well amount to much the same thing as my recommendation.
    If that were to be our position, we would need to return to campaigning all out for electoral reform, which Tim is also proposing, so that if any such government were formed, it could only be portrayed as one influenced by us.
  • Alex more or less sums up what I feel. A coalition with the Tories isn’t always to be ruled out whatever the circumstances. It was our whole approach to the Coalition that sealed our fate. The leadership gave the impression that this was what we had always wanted, rather than emphasising this was a difficult and perhaps even unpleasant choice that we felt we had to make for the good of the country. The rest is history … but the last straw during the election campaign was when Nick refused to make the EU referendum (i.e. not having one) a red line.

    For all the other reasons given in previous comments, the only way to vote in the leadership election is for Tim Farron, much as I like Norman Lamb.
  • @alex,
    I agree completely about the mistakes that were made in the course of the coalition and about the party’s leadership at the time – which seemed focussed almost entirely on using the coalition to force the party to the right.

    But I think there’s a deeper problem. We were wiped out of the public imagination before we were wiped out in the election. It wasn’t just the awful blunders and betrayals of 2010-11. It was the fact that we never recovered from them. That happened because the electorate basically treated us an appendage of the Tories, giving us no credit for what went right but also not blaming us for what went wrong. That was the result of being in coalition with a dominant party whose values are very different from ours. There is room for only one narrative about a government and the one that took hold was ‘this is a Conservative government’. That happened because it was the simplest and clearest story one could tell and because it suited very well both Labour and the Conservatives and their media allies. Our story was complicated and no one else was telling it. I don’t think there was any way for us to have pulled that round or for it to be avoided in similar circumstances in the future.

    On local government, the difference is the relative contributions of the ground war and the air war in the campaign. In local elections we have more of a chance of getting across our definition of the situation because often the only information getting to the electorate comes from our own literature. In a parliamentary election, that isn’t the case.

    In any case I seem to remember very firm advice from ALDC to groups in hung councils that they should at all costs avoid succumbing to ‘an attack of the sensibles’ – that is taking responsibility for everything and being obsessed with ‘stability’ at the cost of the party’s political goals.
  • I agree with all the 5 “Never do this” points except the first (sort of). If, as in 2010, the arithmetic makes coalition with the Tories the only viable option for a stable government, what else are we supposed to do? We have gone into coalition with the Tories in local government before and it has not ended in a rout. We didn’t do badly in the recent election just because we went into coalition with the Tories, we did badly because we totally mishandled it from Day One. The wrong tone was set from the moment Nick & Dave stood side by side in the rose garden. We utterly failed to differentiate ourselves from the Tories; failed ever to say what we would have done differently in a Lib Dem government; we failed to capitalise on the how the two parties’ respective MEPs, unbridled by the Coalition, acted and voted. We could have used them to show what undiluted Toryism AND LibDemmery look like (and pointed to the Tories’ unsavoury right-wing allies in Brussels). We did none of this, and so we looked like slightly nicer Tories, and that is why we got a kicking. I think a coalition with the Tories could have been made to work in our favour, but the recently departed leadership were not the ones to do it.
  • I supported the creation of the Coalition and continued to support it throughout the last parliament. However in the recent LDV survey I was in a surprisingly small minority of members who indicated that we would have taken a different view had we known what we now know in terms of the electoral impact on the LDs. So in identifying lessons on he future we surely need to establish why so many ordinary members, as opposed to activists, still think going into coalition was the right thing to do. However,one one lessons we have in my opinion to learn, as should Labour and the Greens, is that when we abuse each other in our political rhetoric it only benefits the Tories.
  • the trouble with AV was that it was not Lib Dem policy (which was PR), but a compromise which even I thought was designed largely to benefit the Lib Dems. Certainly it would not be good for UKIP. It is better than FPTP, mainly because it removes any need for tactical voting (which might have been very very bad for us on 8%, BTW!)

    Politics students were evidently not very representative of the electorate!
  • Andrew,
    I was still a Councillor during the AV referendum and spoke to two classes of politics students at the local college. We had the Tory Council leader and a labour councillor as well on a panel. We spoke and answered questions. One question I was given was over the collapse of popularity for Nick Clegg. A straw poll showed about 75% support for AV at the beginning and about 90% at the end. I think that any educated argument will favour AV over FPTP. You are correct to say the AV referendum was to some degree turned into a vote about Nick Clegg. Tory arguments suggested AV was PR and even insulted the public by saying that counting to three was too difficult. Labour are also not keen on electoral reform and were pretty much absent from the debate and fuelled the anti Clegg sentiment. It was a real uphill struggle to get the Yes to AV debate going because the media prefers sound bites and controversy to intellectual debate. It is also biased.
    I voted for Chris in the previous leadership campaign (I spoke to him after a Chippenham hustings) and almost voted for him again but decided to vote for Nick following a Bristol hustings where I spoke to Nick afterwards. Both men are impressive characters.
  • Martin,
    That is pretty much what I thought but since I resigned over the pledge-breaking in 2010 after some correspondence with Simon Hughes, I basically ignored most of what was going on and just said “somebody else’s problem” But of course it wasn’t…
    The AV referendum was a low point for me… I am a member of the Electoral Reform Society and a big supporter of STV, but AV was so half-hearted I could not bring myself to campaign for it (despite the disgraceful lies put about by the Tories, quite a lot of Labour MP’s and their dogs in the Press). It turned into a referendum on Nick Clegg, and the Party should have realised then what was in store if he continued as leader…

    I voted for Chris Huhne by the way! Well, that would have been a disaster, but I bet we would have been better off now than we are!
  • Although I understand the toxicity of Nick we were between a rock and a hard place. I supported the coalition as it was formed and continued supporting it even though my heart sank from a euphoric state in 2010 each time our team dropped the ball. This should have been such an opportunity that we seemed to continuously fail to grasp. Tuition fees seemed to kick it off and the slide continued through the bedroom tax, the AV referendum, the failure with the Reform Bill and so on. Part of the problem was a vicious and vile personal attack by Labour. Ed Miliband was clearly upset by the fact his mentor Gordon Brown was told by Nick to go and Labour generally feel they own us. Labour also handled the last 5 years badly and they attacks on Nick were not only attacks on the wrong enemy but also undermined their own political strength in collapsing our support. In the west country Labour supporters help defeat Tory candidates by voting Lib Dem. The big question of whether we should have replaced Nick as leader with hindsight seems to be we should have. He had been so viciously attacked and had made so many mistakes that a leadership change may have salvaged some respect for our party. At the time however the idea of changing our leader seemed wrong to me. It could have made us look weak, buckling under pressure, and may have rendered us less able to influence the Tories due to the perceived relationship between Cameron and Nick. So change we must and indeed embrace as this is (as you say) part of the liberal way.
  • Lynda,
    I’m not talking about whether it was right or wrong to go into coalition. That’s in the past and we should just let it go. I’m only talking about what we should do in the future knowing what we know now, having gone through the whole experience including the 2015 election. Nothing is to be gained by constantly re-running May 2010.
    My main point is that what we now know goes beyond the lessons of specific mistakes about specific policies.. Far more important is the inherent difficulty of maintaining our separate identity in a coalition dominated by a party with very different values.
  • Whilst I agree with a lot of David’s ideas about the way forward we should not forget that a vast majority of members voted to go into the coalition, myself included, due to the exceptional and dire situation the country was in at the time.
    We knew it was a risk but I, for one, did not envisage that our party leaders would prove so inadequate to the task. Political naivity, rampant pragmatism and sheer incompetence combined with inexperience of government to dilute our influence and trample upon our principles. I will never forgive the leadership for , apparently, being asleep at the wheel when the HSCA was first mooted. The shameful way that Nick used Shirley Williams in his incomprehensible determination to stop a revolt from the membership, which would at least have differentiated us from the Tories, will stay with me for ever.
    I really hope that we can have the kind of debate the we so obviously need and deserve in order to rebuild the party but I have become very disillusioned in recent years. I remain a party member and give some help to my local party but I find it hard to envisage a time when I would be able to feel proud of the Liberal Democrats again.
  • posted about this on Facebook 2015-05-24 00:15:19 +0100
    david howarth: thoughts on the way forward
  • @brendalana tweeted link to this page. 2015-05-24 00:15:16 +0100
  • Proportional representation does not ‘inevitably mean coalition’. Minority government is just as likely an outcome as coalition and in many ways is a more democratic one. Moreover, even if coalitions are formed, that doesn’t mean Liberal Democrats have to join them. It is easier of parties based on representing specific interests to join coalitions and survive them than parties based on values and coherent philosophies. For a party based on values and a coherent philosophy to survive a coalition requires the coalition itself to have had a basis in shared values and overlapping philosophies. The Lib Dem-Conservative coalition had no such basis. The result was that, as the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats simply disappeared from public view, reappearing now and again in the apparent guise of a group of people seemingly determined to hang on to office at all costs. Yes, the coalition was also badly managed, but the lesson to be learned is more findamental than that.
  • I think there’s some muddled thinking here.

    I believe in proper representative democracy – and therefore in proportional representation.

    With several parties, this will inevitably mean a need for coalition. But this article argues against Lib Dems joining coalitions.

    I think the way we did coalition last time was appalling. Coalitions can work for minority parties only if they insist on the right to go public about the deals they do. “We gave way in this as part of a deal which gave us that; in our judgement it was worth it”. Having made a deal is OK to stick to it; but Clegg et al sold is out on many issues that were not part of the coalition agreement. Selling out the NHS by supporting the HSCA – introducing the very “top down reforms” the Tories had pledged not to do; and certainly not part of the coalition agreement – is a crime for which the pummelling they got at the ballot box can only be a tiny part of the necessary punishment.
  • well, what AV does is ensure that MPs who cannot command a majority of the electorate get over 50% with the second and third preferences. It removes the need for tactical voting because you can do that with second preferences. It is better than what we have but not much more proportional – very unlikely that UKIP would have got any more MPs for example. Think of it as a runoff between the top two in a constituency
  • Andrew, thank you. The problem with AV was that nobody could understand how having your second choice elected was supposed to be a good thing. Sure, it might keep the enemy out, but you are supposed to be voting for the candidate you want, not reserve voting for someone else. It came across as confusing when faced with the logic of both FPTP (who wins wins) and PR (the % vote you get is the % MPs you get). Most people myself included had never heard of AV, and assumed any PR referendum would be on PR proper. To people who don’t engage with politics, it was even more confusing because they don’t want to have to think about how it works, they just want to use it. I’m only saying this from my own experience as a (Relatively) intelligent person living in an impoverished town among people whose day to day problems are severe, and no matter how intelligent they are individually the lack of a simple understandable choice meant there was no choice at all. Sorry.
  • Jon, I agree entirely with you about how the coalition could have worked for the Lib Dems. It needed to be an uneasy relationship from the start.

    I am not sure what was complicated about AV though! Easy as numbering 1,2,3 and much simpler (and worse) than the STV system the Irish and Scots (in local government) have no trouble with! What complicated things were the rabid attacks by the press saying all sorts of things that were totally untrue about AV
  • The fiasco of Tuition Fees was an abject surrender to the Conservatives, it showed the public that Clegg, at least, had been lying all along, and it showed that promises that the Lib Dems would bring a different kind of politics were farcical, not to put too fine a point on it. Politics as usual, just with a different player, that is how most people saw it, and vowed not to be taken in again.

    The Coalition could only have worked if the Lib Dems had played hardball and been prepared to collapse the government insisted on trying to pass legislation that attacked their supporters, undermined the values that they had so long said they stood for, and so on. But as Clegg was so intent on staying at all costs, his talk of stability just looked like so much surrendering of principles to people who had supported the party.

    AV, honestly I never even understood this. Most people I know didn’t vote in the referendum because they were confused by it. The only message they were getting was a negative one from the press and that coloured their view. I have no idea myself if it was a good idea or a bad one. It was too complicated to take to a referendum.

    The impression that was gained overall was the Lib Dems trumpeted achievements that may or may not have been due to them, but which by the very definition of the coalition were things that the Tories were not against, anyway.
  • Zigurds Kronbergs
    I was not outraged about tuition fees, although the policy was daft, because it involved spending large sums of money in an attempt to reduce the deficit (hidden behind some mysterious accountancy rules). But the pledges made directly with the voters in your constituency are a special type of pledge, and the electorate rightly spotted that those individual pledges made by individual MP’s were not manifesto commitments, and trumped any coalition agreement. The Lib Dems had portayed themselves for years as the party that kept its promises, and that was destroyed in an instant.

    For the record, I would introduce a graduate tax (a few % per year, up to retirement) to fund universities. What is more, I would make it retrospective ( not backdated, but added to income tax from now on) for all who went to university before the fees/loans era. Including most MP’s, and me. That would actually have helped the deficit…
  • Thanks Ruth. x
  • Personally, I have never understood the unique outrage associated with the tuition fees issue (particularly the synthetic outrage orchestrated by Labour, which introduced tuition fees in the first place), and yes, I did have children who were affected, but see Matthew Huntbach’s letter in Saturday’s Guardian. With a new leader, perhaps we can now at last close that episode and move on.
  • Andrew said "We need to redefine the political map as a triangle with apices Conservatism, Socialism and Liberalism. " This is the key task in a nutshell !

    I also agree that with 20:20 hindsight giving up on the tuition fees pledge was a massive error, but it may have been a forced error. (Is there anyone in the party who’d disagree with that?) If it was traded for the AV referendum, even sadder. but, water under the bridge now. At last we can move on past that.
  • I am one of the recent rejoiners to the Liberal Democrats (having been a member for 23 years up to 2010).
    For me the breaking of the pledge was far worse than joining the coalition. The electorate loved the pledge – it was straightforward and was within the power of every MP, whether in government or not. It should have been absolutely non-negotiable in the coalition agreement. For Nick Clegg to come out and apologise for making the pledge but not for breaking it just made matters worse.

    Breaking the pledge was the main reason for Nick’s hugely negative approval rating, which has dogged the Lib Dems for the entire parliament. I like Nick Clegg and respect much of what he stands for and has achieved in coalition, but he was damaged goods from then on, and damaged the rest of the party (even those who stuck to the pledge) at every stage. I made my own pledge not to be a member or deliver a leaflet for the party while he was leader, which I have stuck to.

    Regarding centrism, I agree completely with David Howarth. The Labour party is going to lurch back to the right and there will be no room between them and the Tories. We need to redefine the political map as a triangle with apices Conservatism, Socialism and Liberalism. Our core values are very different from the other parties on so many issues. The most distinctive for me that affects every other policy is a distrust of centralism of power, whether in big business or government. That told me without even pausing to think about it that a top-down reorganisation of the NHS was a big mistake, for example. Backing STV is another example of giving power to people over parties – I was so very disappointed that the Lib Dems went for an AV referendum, which is not remotely proportional and was easily portrayed as being motivated mainly by self-interest
  • Jo come back x
  • Like Zigurds Kronbergs, I think that the personal animus towards Nick Clegg shown by David is a regrettable characteristic of those who opposed the Coalition. It is surely possible to accept that like many decisions in life there was no clear cut answer as to how to proceed in 2010. Moreover, comparisons with the 1930s are easy to make in retrospect, but the Britain of 2010 was a very different world to that of 1930. However, just as Ed Miliband’s belief that Britain had moved to the left between 2010 and 2015 has proved incorrect, so those of us who supported the Coalition must accept that the experiment has failed and that the British people do not reward a junior coalition partner, particularly in the absence PR as a safety net. Even so, while David’s proposals do indeed offer a way forward for the next five years, given the fact that we now have a majority Government, if only in terms of the parliamentary arithmetic, I do not find his reference to New Zealand very convincing in charting a course in the event of a future minority government, whether Labour or Conservative. Indeed it seems to me that the only way the LDs could continue to advance in these circumstances would be a minority Conservative Government dependent on UKIP and DUP support. Any other outcome in 2020 would set back any progress made by the LDs in the coming five years.
  • Nick Clegg tried to prove to the British public that Continental-style politics and coalitions were workable and could become the new mould for political reforms.

    While he managed some limited success in that arena , overall his experiment has decimated the party and alienated many voters — including myself.

    I agree with much of what David has said — the Liberal Democrats must be a party of values. But we also must not ignore evidence — and one of the most painful lessons to draw from Thursday’s results is the clear and evident fact that British FPTP elections can not be fought with the view of forming Continental-style coalitions.
  • David, I do agree with your characterisation of our behaviour within the recent coalition. There was much “toeing the official line”. But I do not think that this is necessarily the only way to operate. Indeed I’d suggest that the Conservatives were somewhat less honourable than we were in this regard, being quite willing to shout loudly about both their policies and ours as “Conservative achievements”. Rather than avoiding coalitions entirely in the future, isn’t the lesson that we should be much more careful to retain and promote our distinct identity whilst in coalition?
  • It doesn’t imply that at all. We now know a lot more than we knew in 2010. We know first hand how coalition with the Tories works. I am not re-running the past but thinking about what to do in the future. We need to incorporate into our thinking what we have learned. That is the only rational way to proceed.
    On that basis, what I am saying is that it would be incredibly stupid to enter into another coalition with the Tories.
    Someone from D66 once remarked that their experience was that ‘to govern is to halve’ – that is, every time they went into government their vote was cut in half. But they have PR as protection against complete wipe out. We don’t. We are lucky to have any MPs at all. There is no point talking about coalition negotiations on this policy or that policy when the result could easily be the end of the party.