Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Lessons From Coalition – The Two Biggest Problems: Betrayal and Betrayal

This article comes in two versions: in depth here, and the supercompressed version published as part of Lib Dem Voice’s Lessons From Coalition series.

All governments depend on events – some, like the LiberaTory Coalition, coming in when events were especially bleak. No lesson can predict all political outcomes. But whatever the economic and political weather, some lessons are plain.

The two biggest problems for any future coalition will be the breakdown of trust between the voters and the coalition parties, and the breakdown of trust between the coalition parties themselves. The Liberal Democrats have learned that all too well.

We know what the flashpoint issues for each during the current Coalition that still say ‘bitterness’ and ‘betrayal’ to many, too: tuition fees and Lords reform. On both, ugly reality got in the way of how coalitions ought to work. The challenge is to learn from them in order to foresee and avoid similar events – if we don’t find solutions to both problems, any future coalition will suffer the same poison.

If It Won’t Work, Walk; But If It Will Work, Walk In

We should aim to achieve things in government – that’s what a political party’s there for.

The theory of forming a Coalition is sound. If we don’t win a majority and no-one else does either, the Liberal Democrats must negotiate with other parties – ideally playing them off against each other to get more of what we want, if the votes tumble evenly enough to give us that chance. It’s the worst option apart from all the others. We should always oppose a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, which means nearly all the blame for none of the power to do anything. That leaves two options: a coalition, yes or no. For a political party rather than a debating society, the choice is straightforward. We should drive as hard a bargain as we can. If it’s impossible to reach agreement on enough of our priorities, we must be prepared to say no. But the corollary of that is that we must be prepared to say yes, too, if we can form a stable government with another party that delivers enough of our aims. When I spoke in favour of endorsing the LiberaTory Coalition, I was under no illusions, and neither was anyone else in the hall:
“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’.”
From the platform, Vince Cable made a similarly practical point:
“It’s going to be bloody awful. But it’ll be less awful because we’re there.”
It’s never going to be easy, but it’s in the national interest – and it’s simply what a political party is for.

The Lib Dem Voice regular polling question ‘Would you rather form a coalition with Labour or Conservative?’ is based on a completely mistaken assumption. I’d rather we form a government on our own. If the voters don’t give us that, I’m still a Liberal Democrat, and I don’t follow the media narrative that I must be ‘really’ Tory or Labour, push comes to shove. I dislike both of them. My answer is not that I want to be a bit Labour or a bit Tory, but that I’d go with the one that’s prepared to be the most Lib Dem. Whichever way round they go, we should partner the party that compromises and not the one that’s arrogant enough to just demand we join them. That’s the principle; the simple common sense reason is that to prefer one side in advance is essentially an endorsement, one that sends voters streaming away to whichever side we’ve given the nod to before the election and loses all bargaining leverage afterwards.

2010 is the only case study we have. I’ll never like the Tories either, but the tiny band who pretend we should have formed a coalition with Labour (and Uncle Tom SNP and all, and still not got a majority) after the last election were out of touch with reality then and have rewritten history since. Both the number of seats that the voters gave to each party and the Labour Party’s own ‘negotiations’ made a coalition with Labour impossible – but I also remember what the Labour Party did with thirteen years of absolute power and saw them as no better than the Conservatives. I didn’t forget the war-mongering, evidence-sexing, amnesia-promising, freedom-crushing, LGBT-hypocrisising, rich-brownnosing, poor-taxing, crony-bribe-swallowing shameless Labour Government overnight in favour of a starry-eyed childish fantasy image of the ‘nice’ Labour Party that bears no resemblance to their continuing record. And I remember what they offered as the price of coalition: bugger all.

Next time will be different in ways we can’t know. The Tories may well prove ungovernable; Labour may realise that they can’t demand absolute power when more than seven out of ten voters oppose them. But there’s a simple lesson from 2010 about how to negotiate. Labour did not offer a Coalition. It demanded a mass defection. Despite the Lib Dems getting our second-biggest vote since 1928 and Labour their second-worst vote since 1918, Labour’s sense of entitlement pretended that they had the right to keep everything they wanted and Lib Dem voters should get nothing. Despite Labour winning eight and a half million votes to the Lib Dems’ seven million, they expected all Lib Dems to suddenly join the Labour Government to vote for everything we’d previously opposed, because our voters being 83% as numerous as theirs didn’t count. Well, that was a ‘privilege’ it was easy to turn down. There is no point whatsoever in joining a government only to do exactly what the other party would do anyway – otherwise, we’d all have taken the easy road and just joined one of the others years ago. One lesson for Labour from the LiberaTory Coalition is that the Lib Dems are not their battered spouse. As Andrew Hickey said most pithily, we are not Labour’s back-up plan.

The Tories had a larger vote still – ten and a half million – but they weren’t so tribal as to insist only their votes counted… Not when they didn’t have a majority, anyway. Of the four main priorities on the front cover of the Lib Dem 2010 Manifesto, the Tories agreed to three and a half of them (though the ‘half’ has since crumbled further), and Labour none of them. The main advantage of talking to Labour turned out to be that even the Tories couldn’t believe how arrogant Labour would be and assumed that they, too, must be bargaining in good faith, giving a boost to the Lib Dem-Conservative negotiations. I vividly remember self-important Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind complaining all over the TV that the Lib Dems were “harlots” for talking to Labour as well, a Tory predictably failing to comprehend so-called Tory principle of free-market competition to get the best deal.

So the theoretical lesson is that, short of a Lib Dem majority, the best outcome for the Lib Dems at the next election would be genuinely holding the balance of power (as we didn’t quite last time), with both other parties so hungry for power that they offer big compromises – like the Tories in 2010, only more so. That would give us the most power to bargain, and to choose the partner that would enable the greatest share of our Manifesto. The worst would be for the voters again to give us only one realistic choice, and for both others to behave like Labour in 2010 and offer nothing. Then I hope we’d have the guts to walk away.

Unfortunately, reaching even a good deal on paper is where the problems really start.

Compromise or Betrayal?

Voters don’t trust parties to do what they promise. Most of all, they don’t trust us.

The Coalition Agreement was a decent programme for government. The Liberal Democrats didn’t win the election. Fortunately, neither did anyone else. That gave us a chance at last to put some of our Manifesto into action after nearly a century of none of it. The LiberaTory Coalition promised government by principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility, all sounds Liberal ideals. We’d constantly made clear what our priorities were before the election, and three and a half of those four main priorities written on the front of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto were being delivered. Even in Coalition Government, even after 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. Raising the income tax threshold and cutting taxes for 23 million ordinary working people. The Pupil Premium to help out poorer schoolkids. Not just a stronger but a fairer economy, tackling the banks, record numbers of apprenticeships, green jobs and the new Green Investment Bank open for business. And tiny baby steps that soon tripped up on more open politics. Win-win-win-OK, lose a bit on the last one, surely?

Well, we all know what happened next. Somehow the narrative is almost entirely that to get nothing, zip, zero, nada done and help no-one at all would have been principled, while getting stuck in and delivering quite a lot of what we wanted to do is a betrayal. No-one’s interested in looking at policies as a whole: that’s too much effort. No-one complains when we moderate what the Tories want to do (despite the best efforts of baying Tory MPs who actually see what’s going on). But for the Lib Dems to make compromises in some areas to achieve wins in others is an unforgiveable sell-out. The irony, of course, being that this is the corrosive attack by Tory and Labour Parties who have identical policies on tuition fees, the Lib Dem effect on which was to make them far fairer to poorer students (and poorer graduates).

Without a way to challenge the idea that any compromise is betrayal, it’s hard to see how any future coalition can work, either.

In retrospect, David Cameron’s cleverest move in the Coalition negotiations was to have the nous to put his foot down and say the new government would have to keep his expensive but explicit promises, like protecting handouts to millionaire pensioners, even when they weren’t key commitments of the Tory Party itself. And Nick Clegg’s was to be willing to bargain away expensive personal promises because they weren’t at the top of the Lib Dem Manifesto. We all know by now how devastating the effect of Nick breaking his tuition fee promise has been, however improved the real as opposed to the political outcome.

The problem even for negotiations is that voters regard Labour and Tory as opposites and Lib Dems as somewhere in the middle – according to taste, a moderating or a blandifying influence. This is something Nick Clegg has done his best to amplify. It’s not enough on its own. It gives only weakly negative reasons to vote for us, when even Nick in the early days of the LiberaTory Coalition knew that it wasn’t enough to hold each other back, but to achieve big positive things, too. And it’s actively dangerous to future negotiations. It does nothing to explain our poor bargaining hand on the many, many issues where the other parties are identical and we oppose both: most famously, raising tuition fees, but also wasting billions on Trident and, increasingly for the Tories as they move back towards Labour’s far right position, attacking civil liberties.

The best case that can be made with this message is that the Liberal Democrats are in Coalition with the relatively moderate side of the Tory Party and pulling them to greater moderation in the process. While shrieking ‘Traitor!’ for the Lib Dems being an independent party and not their possession, Labour see no contradiction in voting again and again and again with the far right of the Tory Party to make politics more rabidly authoritarian. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t that no-one else sees the contradiction in that, either, because it simply doesn’t fit the narrative that Labour’s illiberal gut instincts are just as extreme as the Tories’.

Agreements Are the Start, Not the End

Parties don’t trust each other to keep to their agreements. Most of all, we don’t trust either of the other two.

If Labour were the more unbearable immediately after the election, a large proportion of the Tories have been making up for lost time in the Coalition itself as their own sense of entitlement grows. And not just the far right MPs who are irreconcilable to any compromise with the Coalition, with their own Leader, or with reality, but – more subtly though in many ways more damagingly – many of the Tory Ministers who in theory are loyal to the Coalition. So what would be the point of making another Coalition Agreement with Mr Cameron if we know from experience that his Leadership is too weak to deliver on his fine words?

Both the letter and the spirit of the Coalition Agreement have slowly withered. A lesson from the LiberaTory Coalition is that agreement on policy at the start is not enough. For two inevitable reasons, any unequal coalition government will get more like the larger party as it goes along: the initial agreement will run out of steam as (and if) it gets delivered; the larger party having the mass of ministers will be able to respond day-to-day to events to its own tune. And those inevitables aren’t all. Large swathes of written promises and more of the principles on which the Coalition was proclaimed have simply not been delivered.

The LiberaTory Coalition has tested if the Lib Dems really meant our Opposition rhetoric about co-operation; through gritted teeth and pain, it turns out we do. It’s also tested if the Tories really meant their Opposition rhetoric – and their signed-up Coalition Agreement’s explicit promises – about the environment, freedom and decentralisation. It turns out they don’t. George Osborne consistently undermining a greener government, Theresa May’s indistinguishable-from-the-Labour-Party authoritarianism and Eric Pickles micro-managing every local council to his own bizarre prejudices only the biggest examples of Tory Ministers simply chucking the LiberaTory Coalition’s founding principles in the bin.

More openly, there’s been a repeated pattern of Lib Dem MPs faithfully voting through some horrible compromise closer to what the Tories wanted, then Tory MPs voting against the more Lib Dem-agreed proposals or Tory Ministers simply dropping them. Part of this is because the Lib Dems agreed to the Coalition en masse, while only the Tory high command ever gave their word. Part of it is simply that it’s in the Lib Dems’ long-term interest to show that Coalition can work, and in the Tories’ long-term interest (if not in David Cameron’s, who can’t afford to lead a failed government) to show that Coalitions fail. Polling may show that more voters believe the Tories haven’t kept to the deal, but I suspect they also don’t care. The “Betrayal” label still belongs to the Lib Dems.

This doesn’t mean that Labour have been blameless in Opposition. More headless. Labour’s years of shrieking fury against the Lib Dems for having the temerity to be a separate party, where they flung shamelessly homophobic abuse at the Coalition and voted against everything they claimed to support simply out of mouth-foaming hatred and a desire to see the Coalition fail, have made them – as under George W Bush – soulmates of the US Republican Party in its obsession with wrecking anything to do with President Obama, even if that means wrecking America.

It all throws into sharp relief the problem with Coalition Agreements. What happens if the other party simply breaks the agreement? Like tuition fees for the voters’ sense of betrayal, one totemic issue was the breaking point. David Cameron agreed to Lords reform, but a large pack of his MPs are feral animals who will vote against him, let alone against us. The Labour Party has pretended to support Lords reform for a hundred years, but on the one single occasion that an elected Lords was on the verge of being delivered in that time, not just a feral faction of them but the entire Labour Party collectively voted to defeat its own principles because, like spoilt teenage bullies, they couldn’t bear anyone else to get the credit. As on so many issues that they claimed to support in principle, in practice they treated Lords reform as a political football, with them as Lucy van Pelt. I don’t know which is worse, but I do know that that day made it seem impossible for the Lib Dems to trust either party in 2015.

Is There Any Hope For A Future Coalition?

The Lib Dems can’t just sit back and hope that press, public or other parties will all suddenly decide to treat us fairly.

That isn’t to say that others may not change their minds in a more helpful direction. To be fair to our opponents / dubiously potential partners, there are straws in the wind that each other party may be stepping back from the abyss, if not quite becoming creatures of reason and principle. To Ed Miliband’s credit, in recent months he’s finally been grown up and passed up opportunities to cut off his nose to spite his face (on, for example, Europe and mostly-equal marriage). It’s too early to say if this means the end of Labour’s all-consuming hatred, but it’s a start. And to David Cameron’s credit, he appears to be realising that he’d have to get his party to commit themselves in another hung Parliament as the Lib Dems did, rather than leave himself exposed when he leads and they choose later not to follow. But faced with two such major problems looming for any future coalition, we need to find our own solutions too.

The Lib Dem Leadership’s ‘we are the middle’ answer appears to be to abandon the big ambitions of either Lib Dem policies in general or even of the early days of the LiberaTory Coalition. It’s at best a sort of judo, to let the other two parties stand for something and then try to turn standing for anything against them by saying ‘Well, we don’t know what we want to do, but we’ll stop them getting that.’ To me, a Manifesto that doesn’t promise anything much that distinguishes us from the other two may guard against betrayal, but it doesn’t give people much of a reason to vote for us in the first place. It also seems to be tacitly accepting in advance that neither of the others can be trusted to vote for any of our own programme, and that all we can hope for is for them to get their own, just not as much as they’d like of it.

I don’t have all the answers, but here are three proposals for a start:

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Part of this is because the Lib Dems agreed to the Coalition en masse, while only the Tory high command ever gave their word.

I think there's some truth in that, which leads to the possibility that in any new Coalition agreement, it might be wise to insist that both parties put the final document to a one-member, one-vote test. (It would have to be OMOV because most parties that aren't the Lib Dems wouldn't have a structure of elected voting reps in place.)

What happens if the other party simply breaks the Coalition Agreement?

Well, the ultimate sanction is supposed to be that the first party walks away and forces a new election, and honestly, when I voted for the Coalition Agreement, I assumed that's what Lib Dem MPs would do. Their failure to do so is one of the reasons I still feel so deeply betrayed; worse, actually, I feel abused, because my vote has been used to do things that go against all my principles and, in many cases, are virtually the opposite of what the Agreement said I was voting for.
Thanks, Liz.

Richard made a similar proposal when answering the 'coalition question' last year. I think there should be some form of vote, at least, but didn't want to get tied up in mechanics.

And I do understand your position. In part, what I've written about is an attempt to pre-empt so much walking if there's a next time...
"I’m still a Liberal Democrat, and I don’t follow the media narrative that I must be ‘really’ Tory or Labour, push comes to shove. I dislike both of them. My answer is not that I want to be a bit Labour or a bit Tory, but that I’d go with the one that’s prepared to be the most Lib Dem."


Also your last paragraph.
Thank you, Jennie!

I simply don't comprehend actual Lib Dems (rather than the media) saying, 'Oh, it must be [insert illiberal party here], however little they offer and however much the others do.'
Well, that is about the most depressing thing I've read all week. Which, given the Miranda detention, is saying something.


Oh dear! Perhaps I shouldn't have gone for sordid realism but, as no-one else seemed to have nailed it in the previous 16 lessons...

At the risk of piling on the agony, I've just made a comment on the LDV version that I should have thought to encapsulate in the main articles, so I'm reprinting it here, too:

I’m always wary of statements like “the British public in general” as if they were some homogenous group – or even as if most people have firm views. Opinion polls say people don’t like “compromise”. Opinion polls also say people do like “politicians working together”. Common sense says ‘most people don’t bother to think about these things very much and believe in completely contradictory things because they don’t have to deliver them’.

Similarly, from outside the Westminster Bubble the Lib Dem ‘betrayal’ looks worse: they told the voters they’d do something, and didn’t do it! But the Tories only broke their promise to the Lib Dems, so that counts much less. Whereas in reality, the Lib Dems had to break a lot of promises in order to get any of them through – it wasn’t all or nothing, but some or nothing. The Lib Dems ‘betrayal’ was through necessity. The Tory ‘betrayal’ was just because… They chose to break their promises, correctly calculating that there’d be little or no consequences.

My article is an attempt to clarify those two facts, and see if anything can be done about them.
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