Friday, May 11, 2012


Happy Birthday to the Libera-Tory Coalition?

With no party winning a majority of seats (much less votes), two years ago today the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats did the responsible thing and reached an initial agreement on Coalition. Since then, some Tories have been wailing that they can’t do everything they want because the Lib Dems won’t let them (and because the voters didn’t let them), many Lib Dems have been suffering and most voters have been wanting to have their cake and make cuts to everyone else’s. Soon, I’ll be looking at some of the effects and just what the Lib Dems stand for in detail. Today, I’m looking back to what I and others said then, how that worked out, and whether we were right to say it in the first place.

Forming the Coalition was easier for the Tories. First, because they’re not used to being out of power and would do anything to get it back; the Lib Dems, having been out of power for ninety years, were a bit more concerned with what to achieve with it. And second, because once the negotiations reached an agreement between the two parties, they could make an instant yes / no decision, as the Tory Leader’s word is law right up to the point they decide to cut his head off (luckily for Mr Cameron, his main threat at the moment only appears to be Nadine Dorries, a headless chicken herself).

The Liberal Democrats who negotiated The Coalition: Our Programme For Government had, instead, to convince the rest of the party to agree in advance (which turned out not to be so hard after all, and strengthens Nick Clegg in adversity where Tories who get cold feet can pretend it’s all David Cameron’s fault). And once Parliamentarians and Party Committees had been convinced, the rest of us were given our opportunity in that rare beast, the Special Conference, held on Sunday 16 May 2010 in an unfriendly aircraft hangar at the Birmingham NEC. Now, what I should be doing, of course, is re-reading our 2010 Manifesto, the initial Coalition Agreement and the long Coalition Agreement, cross-referencing them against each other and against the Government’s record. Sorry. I haven’t (though I did notice that during the negotiations I said it should be all four of our front-page Manifesto priorities, or no deal, and our negotiators got three and a half, which was better than I was expecting). But what I have done recently is come across the scrappy bit of paper on which I jotted down my speech to that Special Conference and, bonus! It was only a minute long…

Coalition Special Conference Speech: “The Worst Possible Time”

If you want to make a speech at a Lib Dem Conference, you have a think about why and then put that down on a card. The Chair of the debate balances what you want to say against what everyone else does, so the debate’s neither too repetitious or two one-sided (a speech against often helps you get called, with the speakers against Coalition at the Special Conference also being virtually all of the tiny “No” vote so as to make the debate sound more balanced). And the likelihood of your being selected also rises or falls depending on how popular the topic and how early the hour. If you say just what everyone else is going to on your card, but less coherently, and you put in to speak in the packed debate on the Manifesto immediately before the Leader’s speech, you’ve got no chance, while if you want to be called at 9am on the third day of Conference to speak against the Milk Marketing motion, even if what you’ve written is gibberish, the Chair will be as pathetically grateful you’ve got out of bed as if you were the cavalry charging over the hill.

It turned out that, for this debate, arguably the most important the party’s ever held and all essentially on the same topic, nearly two hundred people wanted to make the fewer than forty speeches there would be time for at five minutes apiece. Worse, MPs, Peers and all the rest of the Party Great and Good were all lining up impatiently for their own chance at the lottery, making the likelihood of your being called if you were an ordinary member slimmer still. My beloved Richard Flowers wrote an excellent speech about making the Liberal difference, but didn’t get the chance to make it.

However, for massive debates like this – well, there are no others like this, and haven’t been since the Lib Dems were formed, but for major debates with wide-ranging policies – there’s also the opportunity of making an ‘intervention’. This means you don’t go up to the stage to speak, resoundingly, from the lectern, but have to clutch your notes in your hand at a smaller mike somewhere in the middle of the seating; that you’re chosen at random; and you only get one minute, one second after which you will usually have the power to your mike switched off, which is ignominious and unhelpful to your point if you’re in the middle of a sentence. In this case there were a mere hundred or so people chasing just over thirty mini-speeches but, luckily, my name was called for a slot – and here’s roughly what I said in it:

“I wanted a progressive coalition too, but 57 Lib Dems plus one Alliance Party’s still only 58, so we had to talk to both nasty authoritarian parties instead.

“When I read that Coalition Agreement, some of it was inspiring.

“OK, some of it was dispiriting.

“But at last we can implement Liberal Democrat policies. Liberalism.

“We can hold back the worst of the Tories – when the alternative was the DUP making the Tories that much worse.

“And we can scrap some of the worst of that appalling Labour Government in the Freedom Bill – which I hope will include the Digital Economy Act. No wonder Labour didn’t want to talk.

“This is our first real national power since 40 years before I was born.

“Maybe it is the worst possible time to take power.

“But I don’t want us to wait until I’m wheeled into Conference aged 78, in another 40 years, to say, ‘Well, the economy’s crashed again and at last we’ve got another hung Parliament. Maybe we should try it this time’.”

Why did I want to speak? To make my point; to be part of history; to ‘dip my hand in the blood’. Take your pick. I wanted to make a mark on the main issue – astoundingly, no-one else seemed to say what I said – I knew what I wanted to say, and I found myself ever more strongly hoping that I’d get the chance to say it as the debate went on, with most of the ‘interventions’ basically shopping lists of ‘I want you to renegotiate the entire Coalition Agreement because you’ve not included my pet project’ or, even more aggravatingly, delusional members moaning that they wanted a “progressive coalition” with Labour and wasn’t it unfair that the voters hadn’t given either party enough seats to do it.

So I know that my first line was made up on the spot to answer back. I have no illusions about either of the other parties. Progressive? Labour? Thirteen years of appalling Labour Government, and one week for some idiots to forget what they were like, apparently. Two years later, I can still think of plenty of things to remember about Labour. Anyway, knowing the mike-choppers are brutal on one-minute interventions, as I found myself starting that way instead I automatically skipped over my original opening line: ‘Of course it’s scary. Coalition might make us unpopular – power can do that. So can permanent irrelevance.’ Of course, it’s a good job I did, as we’re today so universally beloved and soaring at 57% in the polls that, had I suggested out loud that Coalition might make us unpopular, I’d look a right nana now.


I had the added fun of having been horribly ill – much more than usual – throughout the previous month, and varied from bounding about with nervous excitement to being half-carried on the day. Luckily for their own nerves, the speakers waiting in line for the mike with me didn’t know that I didn’t know if I was going to speak or to projectile-vomit. Luckily, I spoke, and under the various stresses of the moment, with some passion: what one activist called later “A frisson of ‘fuck off’!” Being on form, I got a lot of applause and quite a few cheers (which are pretty damn rare).

“It’s Going To Be Bloody Awful…”

But it’s not just ego that makes me regret there were no cameras there. For only the second time I can remember at a Lib Dem Conference, the press were excluded: party managers were worried there’d be a storm of opposition to the Coalition, I think. Instead, Nick Clegg afterwards slightly ruefully called the 98% vote in favour a bit North Korean, and posterity – and the day’s news broadcasts – were denied quite a few telling speeches.

Although I didn’t think much of most of my fellow interventionists, some of the principal speeches were very impressive, and if there was one advantage to denying the cameras access, it’s that some ‘big guns’ felt they could speak more personally, just to a hall full of Lib Dem members, rather than have to beam a message to the country as a whole. I remember other people raving about several of them: Simon Hughes touching activists’ g-spots; Chris Huhne grandly combative; David Rendel sad and dignified speaking against. But the two speeches that stuck in my heart were each from senior Lib Dems I’ve never been a huge fan of, despite one of them being then at the crest of quite amazing popularity. One spoke to my hopes, and said he would look after them, the other to my fears, and said they were worth facing.

So when things get bad in the Coalition, I still hold firm to what I said then, and hold close the speeches from Tom McNally and Vince Cable, both newly-appointed ministers. Tom, in the Justice Ministry, knew that of all the ministers speaking, he was the one right on a major faultline between Liberals and Conservatives, and he took his responsibility seriously in promoting freedom rather than just letting yet another hideously authoritarian Government take over: he was, he said, “Minister with Responsibility for this party’s soul.” And Vince was the platform speaker who didn’t seem starry-eyed, or triumphant, or combative, but in tune with my feeling that I wished it wasn’t the worst possible time to take power, but that if we said, ‘No, it’s too difficult and it’ll hurt’, what would have been the point of all those years in the wilderness? We had a responsibility to do what we could. And one line of his should be written on every Lib Dem’s heart:
“It’s going to be bloody awful. But it’ll be less awful because we’re there.”
I remembered the lovely Andy Strange having written an excellent piece about the Special Conference, so I’ve looked up what he had had to say at the time in case there was something important I’d forgotten. For me, he sums up the tone of the debate perfectly as a “pattern of a clear head and a troubled heart”, and has a far better overview than I can remember of it two years later. But I’m also slightly embarrassed, as I’m sure there were other people who wrote about the debate, and it’s just possible Andy’s may have stuck in my head because his was the one I agreed with! He, too, says “Vince Cable gave the best speech I heard” and “The speech that moved me most was the one by Tom McNally.” And also, erm…
“The best speaker in the two intervention slots was Alex Wilcock who managed to make several telling points in a short space of time.”
When I Feel Cowardly

It has, obviously, been bloody awful. Again obviously, we’d be far higher in the opinion polls now (though the new Lib Dem minister in May 2010 who said we’d be down to 5% within a year is still looking on the bright side) if we’d refused to enter the Coalition, not that the voters who back us in mid-term (or even mid-campaign) opinion polls ever have the guts to actually vote for us, and those polls and the lovely pure voting record of our forty or so MPs against the Conservative Government elected in Autumn 2010 would give Lib Dems the warming glow we need to sustain us against the unfortunate let-down that we were slashed down to forty or so MPs when the Conservative Government was elected in Autumn 2010. And we’d have voted against the unlimited rises in tuition fees that the Tories wanted and that Labour’s Browne Report decided, and we’d have patted ourselves on the back when we were a useless minority of forty or so MPs with both the other parties voting it all through, because at least people would still see us as the fluffy, nice, ineffectual party, and they still wouldn’t vote for us.

When I feel cowardly, I wish, in secret, that the Labour Party had managed to creep back into office in 2010 with a majority of 6 seats, rather than dodging the bullet and going into Opposition, where they could say they never did any of the things they did in Government, and vote against all the things they did in Government, and not face a single one of the consequences of the things they did in Government.

I wish, when I feel cowardly, that I wasn’t just writing about things to remember about Labour, but watching Labour MPs scream and turn on each other as their party writhes around with nowhere else to go but face up to their trashing the economy. Watching the Labour Party destroy itself as it either stuck to the cuts they announced before the election and prayed someone else would have to carry out – the cuts “worse than Thatcher” that Labour’s Chancellor promised, mañana – or that they’d bottle them, crash the economy completely and have no-one willing to lend to them, like many other countries in the same position.

I wish the Labour Party who laughed that “There is no money left” to the Coalition that had to pick up their shattered pieces had to find some. That the Labour Party who dicked about in negotiations because the last thing they wanted was to be back in power and then said how terrible a betrayal it was to have a Coalition, because they always thought they could smash our teeth in and then drag us into bed with them like their battered wife, were instead dumped with just enough power on their own to destroy themselves. That when Mervyn King said that whoever won the 2010 election and had to deal with Labour’s disastrous legacy would be “out of power for a generation”, it would mean the Labour Party.

But no.

If we Liberal Democrats were cowards, we’d have joined either Labour or the Tories years ago, never mind what power is for, it’s easier just to sit back and enjoy it. And we Liberals used to dream of being out of power for just a generation.

Holding Back the Cry-Babies Who Think They’re Born To Rule

I’d love watching the Labour Party be destroyed by staying in Government. But that would mean destroying more of the country, too, from their sinking the economy to enforcing their ID cards, and that wouldn’t just be cowardly, it would be evil.

I don’t like the Tories. I never have, and never will. But they’re just like the Labour Party, except that they were serious about compromising on a programme for Coalition Government because they wanted it, and Labour weren’t because they didn’t. Because Labour are cowards.

As for the other lot… There was a brief period where the Tories were trying to be nice, and to their credit I did think their slogan “Together in the National Interest” was a lot better than our slightly forced “In Government – On Your Side”. I remember interviewing Oliver Letwin in Autumn 2010 (written up by Prateek Buch and Mary Reid), and he was trying his hardest to show that we were all the same, while I and others tried our hardest to prize out some differences. He called himself both a soggy liberal and a Gladstonian Liberal (tip for anyone else trying to put one over: you can’t be both). I managed to prize out some differences that convinced me he was really a Tory, but, fine, one we could do business with. Interestingly, one issue the Lib Dems were pressing for and the Tories were still against at the time was same-sex marriage, and the more I threw at him Conservative reasons for it from every direction, the more he looked like he wanted to run away. So, to be fair to them, the Tories in Government have still let themselves be moved further since. But within a month, there came the Browne Report on tuition fees; within six, the AV referendum campaign, and never glad confident morning again. At which most Tories and most Lib Dems breathed a secret sigh of relief and thought, well, we may still have to work with each other but we no longer have to pretend we don’t hate each other’s guts.

Too many Tories still believe that they have a divine right to rule. Well, tough. Labour drones love to squeak ‘No-one voted for this government!’ despite the two parties having had the support of well over 50% of the voters, massively more than any other government during my lifetime (and, still, even in last week’s ‘terrible’ elections). To be fair to the Tories, even on their own they got a lot more votes than Labour did when their last Government ‘won’ absolute power in 2005, though both of them only got a little over a third of the vote. Funny how Labour drones never got round to saying ‘No-one voted for that government!’ isn’t it?

But Liberal Democrats are old-fashioned in that we think Governments need a majority of votes to count, and if they don’t get them, they’re not legitimate. The Tories, of course, are used to being bastards, but they’re not bastards with a majority, so every time they scream that we’re stopping them doing every nasty thing they want – and we are – what they’re really furious about is not ‘the Lib Dems won’t let us govern like Tories’ but ‘the voters didn’t let us govern like Tories, and how very dare they?’

Last year, my subtle and judicious (and award-winning) article “Tory Boy Throws Toys Out of Pram: Not Exactly ‘Man Bites Dog’” explained the whining Tories’ sense of entitlement, their inability to do basic maths, and how far right they want the Government to be – but Lib Dems have stopped them being – on a massive range of issues they were crying bitterly about. I’d like to say the Tory Party’s grown up since, but the latest cry-baby who thinks he’s born to rule is David Cameron, so that’ll be a no.

A Determined Birthday

There’s a lot more to say about the Coalition Government. It’s not a happy birthday. But so what? We knew what we were getting into. We never said we were going to be happy. We said it was going to be bloody awful. And it is.

But we also said it would be less awful because we’re there. And it is. And not just because we’ve put the brakes on much of what the Tories wanted, and fixed much of what Labour did – last week, proudly, with The Protection of Freedoms Act (going right back to my Special Conference speech) becoming law and making Britain a bit more Liberal, a bit less Labour’s bully state.

Those four priorities written on the front of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto are being put into positive action – well, three and a half of them, at least. In Coalition Government, even with Labour blowing the economy to bits and leaving an incredible debt to repay, and even having to compromise with the Tories over what they want to do, the Liberal Democrats have still put our own distinctive stamp on good things from government, not just lessening the bad. Look at that front cover: the only party that ever proposed raising the income tax threshold and cutting taxes for 23 million ordinary working people; the Pupil Premium to help out poorer schoolkids; a fairer economy, tackling the banks, record numbers of apprenticeships, green jobs and the new Green Investment Bank open for business; more open politics, even as Labour and the Tories both try to dick about with democratic reforms they both stood on, too.

When things are bloody awful, it’s easy to be cowardly. It’s easy to let someone else take the responsibility. It’s easy just to take it easy.

The Liberal Democrats have never been a ‘take it easy’ party – or we’d all have joined one of the others and coasted, long ago.

It’s not a happy birthday for the Coalition. It’s a determined birthday. Just as it was a determined birth.

I’ll return to look at what the Lib Dems stand for – and what might make people listen to us again. I’ll look at some more of the Coalition’s greatest mistakes. But today, of all days, I’m determined that we should carry on doing the right thing, because while that may be worse for us, it’s a lot better for the country.

Mark Valladares asked last month, “Can we stop apologising for being in government yet?” Let me agree with him and say, with a lot of determination and, for cowards, a frisson of ‘fuck off’, that the only apology due would have been if we’d been given the opportunity of making a more Liberal Government and let people down instead.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And thanks to everyone who’s linked to this, particularly Caron’s lovely post.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A great piece.

Joe Donnelly
I agree - a great piece.

And I really appreciate you writing it!

Thank you. It is sometimes hard to keep the faith at the moment so it is good to be reminded that this is about generally good Liberal Democrat people doing generally good things for generally good reasons.
It is a great piece, but I think you slightly skate over what the actual problem was with the tuition fees thing... :P

Jennie, who is incapable of unqualified praise ;)
Thanks, each of you.

I suspect you can tell there are a few bits I've been bottling up for a while!

And mea culpa, Jennie. I shall remember to write no articles of fewer than 10,000 words in future ;)
I was at that Special conference too as a conference representative and so was my wife. However, I left the party this year because it's changed since those happy days in 2010. Also I get the feeling the local party blamed me for voting for a Liberal government as it lost them members and councillor seats, although the tide was turning before 2010... once the Labour-leaning, young and former SDLP members left it kinda went downhill from there. One of the party's biggest mistakes was not respecting the amendment passed at that special conference on tuition fees as if our MPs had abstained it would still have passed.... but such things are history now.
"the only apology due would have been if we’d been given the opportunity of making a more Liberal Government and let people down instead."

As someone who voted Lib Dem in 2010 (and accidentally joined the party too) on the strength of their opposition to the Labour/Tory consensus on both welfare reform and civil liberties - only to watch in dismay as they were, in turn, pretty much handed to the Tories, gift-wrapped on a plate with a little bow and a tag saying "Do your worst, we'll stay out of your way" - that is exactly why I want an apology. Except, I don't want an apology, because words are meaningless. I want the Lib Dems to do things differently in future. I want a strong position against trying to screw a further £10bn out of the welfare budget. I want Danny Alexander to repeat what he said about ESA before he had a sniff of power. I want a robust pro-freedom position. I want the Lib Dems to act like the dangerous insurgents I voted for, not the tame, neutered little puppies trotting around on Cameron's heels that they've become to my eyes, at least.

Also, not for nothing, but telling the people who will probably be voting you out of contention in 3 years to "fuck off" is, er, probably not an election-winning tactic.
Well, I’m sorry you’ve both gone off into the comforting, cowardly retirement of just complaining, and I can understand why – I’ve said above how tempting it is to wish for it – but I notice neither of you said a single word about what we could have done instead, which makes my point, isn’t it? You think I’m a poodle; I think you’re a coward. We’re not going to see eye to eye, but if anyone’s interested in politicians telling the truth, that’s the truth as I see it. You can like it, you can lump it, but I’m not going to apologise and pretend I agree with your nice fantasy world.

As for a robust pro-freedom position; I linked, above, to news of The Protection of Freedoms Act becoming law, and of course I want it stronger, but it’s a start, but neither Labour nor Tories would have done it. Nor would they have raised benefits in line with last September’s year-high inflation figures – both George Osborne and Ed Miliband said so. But the Lib Dems insisted on keeping to the rules rather than slashing benefits. No, I don’t like a lot of the welfare ‘reforms’, but they’re better than they would have been with either of the other two alone in government.

The party you voted for said before the election we’d talk to the party that got the most votes and seats about forming a government, if no party had a majority. We did. The party you voted for put four key priorities on the front cover of our Manifesto and talked incessantly about how, if we had any sort of power, they’d be delivered. They are being (well, as I said, three and a half of them at least). In power on our own, it would be a much more Liberal government. Obviously. But after 90 years of no Liberalism, and with the country in crisis, I think it would have been unforgiveable to cop out of getting some Liberalism in Government because we couldn’t get it all.

Also, not for nothing, I laughed when you misrepresented what I said, just as you misrepresent what we’re doing in government, because obviously that’s the only way you can feel better about yourself giving up. I’m too ill to stand for election, and have been for several years; I don’t know if I’d have been as outspoken if I was standing for election, but I hope so. I know being in government’s going to be electorally damaging; well, d’uh! But I’d rather the Lib Dems lose for actually having done something to make things better than lose (as we’ve done for such a long time) than lose because we said, ‘Oh, no, it’s too hard, please only give us a chance of power when there’s unlimited money rather than much less than none, and when the other parties we might have to deal with are lovely fluffy bunnikins and not nasty authoritarians’. Obviously, that’s your position, but I’d feel ashamed if it was mine. So if you feel that “a frisson of fuck off” deserves to apply to you, feel free.
Congratulations on the clarity and force of the arguments in this post.
Powerful stuff Alex! Strongly evocative of the conflicting emotions that I too experienced two years ago.

And as Clegg and Cameron entered Number 10, I lurched like Caron Lindsay between "horror, pride, fear and hope". And those feelings haven't gone away.

I've written my share of critical posts of how we're doing, but I'm also looking ahead because I'm convinced more than ever that the country needs people like you who are prepared to stand up to the taunts and antagonism of the authoritarians.
I do not agree. The price of joining the Coalition should have been Tory support for an ACT for PR by STV. This would have changed politics and guaranteed our influence for the future. If the Tories refused they would have got the blame for no Coalition. We could have got a bigger vote on a subsequent election. I would rather suffer under a Tory Govt and let the people see how bad they are again than see the destruction of our Party and that is what I am seeing now.
Thanks, Lon Won, and for the links - Caron nails it, of course, and yours is excellent. I like a long and well-thought-out piece!

And I notice that Norman Lamb has come out with a similar argument to mine, though more optimistically.

As for "D. Cameron"... I thought at the time we should have got an STV referendum, but given how badly we handed the AV one, it would have been still more of a disaster to have lost the system we actually wanted. No other party would ever simply give us the system without a referendum, however, and had we turned down coalition on that basis, not only would we have let down the country, but everyone would have said 'They only wanted their own self-interest' and we'd have been annihilated without a single achievement to show for it.
Postscript ten years on: it was only this week, on the anniversary (coincidentally) of another Coalition being formed eighty years ago, that I found out my defence of Coalition above just two years on was in almost the same words as someone else.

As Ernest Bevin said when Labour went into Coalition with the Tories: “If the party did not take its share of the responsibility, they would say we were cowards.”

I was less mealy-mouthed than Bevin. I was concerned by the cowardice of not taking the opportunity to make things different, rather than merely frightened of what people would say.

Post a Comment

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?