Friday, 18 February 2011

This is our government, too.

Last May I wasn't overly keen on the prospect of entering into a coalition government with the Conservative Party. However, like many Lib Dems, I could see that whichever road Nick Clegg took was fraught with danger: a "coalition of the losers" would have posed serious political risks and any "supply and confidence" deal with a minority Tory government would in all likelihood have led to another General Election within the year in which we would almost certainly do badly. There were many other reasons why entering into coalition with the largest party was the correct thing to do, and nothing that has happened since has convinced me otherwise.

That is itself a separate issue. My main concern is with some of my fellow Liberal Democrats who, after being so pleased at the prospect of power nine months ago, are now in utter despair. A few Lib Dems have left the party. Others are threatening to. Still others profess outrage at every coalition decision they are not 100% in agreement with. Some go as far as to accuse Nick Clegg and our other colleagues in government as having "sold out" or of being "unfit for government".

Some of this is understandable. I have not been thrilled by every decision the coalition has made but, realising that the Conservatives as the senior partner would wield the strongest influence, my expectations were more realistic. I was critical of the leadership's handling of the tuition fees issue, as well as Vince Cable's unnecessary decision to explain to two journalists his plans for the Murdoch empire. As someone who is deeply opposed to Conservative policy, especially in respect to social policy, a fair amount of what is coming out of the coalition is naturally not to my liking. So I can fully appreciate why fellow Lib Dems have concerns.

But let's get real. Withdrawing from the coalition is not an option, even if was a good idea (which it isn't). Let's get to grips with what coalition is actually about: it's about sharing responsibility for decisions, making those decisions jointly in the country's interest and working co-operatively to implement an agreed policy programme which will inevitably contain elements of both parties' manifestos. Basically, the kind of thing you'd think we Lib Dems would be good at especially given our record in Scotland.

The real problem is not with Nick Clegg, however much we might disagree with him at times. Neither is it really with the coalition. No, it lies with the fact that for many Lib Dems the transition from a party of opposition (or a party of protest, depending on your perspective) to a party of government is a difficult and painful one. It's not easy to adjust to the new realities.

I have no time for renegade Lib Dems like those in St Helens who cynically oppose the coalition for short term electoral gain. More concerned about their council seats than their party or the wider public interest, I don't salute their mock outrage. I have more time for my fellow Lib Dems who are simply uncomfortable with the policy direction of the government. But that, too, is an inevitable consequence of coalition and we have to learn to deal with it.

Shifting the focus onto the positives could help. Let's not get caught into reiterating the tired and false arguments Ed Miliband and his ilk would have the public believe. This is not a Conservative-led government, but a coalition in which 20 Lib Dem MPs are ministers. It's our government too - and don't forget it. In spite of sharing power with a party we would traditionally consider as a sworn enemy - and at a time of economic uncertainty - Lib Dems have made a significant contribution to government. As the inspiring Paul Waugh points out, Lib Dem involvement at the heart of government has resulted in some notable victories including on welfare reform, gay marriage, a British Bill of Rights, the u-turn on the sale of forests, environmental policy, economic growth and social mobility. And the AV referendum of course. He could also have mentioned progress on HE (yesterday even the NUS agreed that the proposals are better for the Lib Dems' moderating influence) and raising the income tax threshold. Or the positive work Michael Moore is currently doing at the Scottish Office.

As Waugh points out knowingly, the success of Clegg and Lib Dem ministers in stamping a liberal mark on government direction is evidenced "by the irritated reaction of the average Tory backbencher". Basically, we know we're doing well because we're getting up the Tories' noses.

Danny Alexander has looked surprisingly assured since taking over from David Laws at the Treasury, while Chris Huhne looks like a natural minister. Whatever his detractors say, Clegg has continued to show determined leadership - even if he's not really selling his achievements very effectively to the public.

We need to be positive about what we're achieving in government, while being realistic about the limitations of coalition. We're not going to implement every Lib Dem policy. Yes, the Tories can be infuriating at times. But we are making a difference and will continue to do so. The attitudes of some (including at times our effervescent party president, Tim Farron) seems to be one of taking credit for elements of coalition policy we like while blaming the Tories for decisions we struggle to agree with. Some members will like that approach, but that's not how a good coalition works. We can not pick and choose what policies to support - after all, we'd be outraged if Tories decided not to support obviously Lib Dem policies such as marriage equality. We have to appreciate that our ministers are in government making tough decisions and need to be supported to do so.

I have no doubt that many of the decisions facing Lib Dem ministers will be unpalatable and difficult. But that is what government is about. We can not, and should not, complain because our party is for the first time in almost 90 years making decisions on issues that matter. We should also be focused not on small policy details but on greater goals: in particular, the fact that government policy is imbued with liberal philosophy is reassuring for those of us who strongly believe in promoting a more liberal society.

I appreciate that rebellion comes naturally to we Lib Dems! I also realise how tempting it must be for individual Lib Dems to make a stand against an unpopular policy. But voters are not noted for taking seriously parties that are divided on almost every issue (remember the Tories in the 1990s?). Talking down the coalition or sticking the knife in (often via the national media) is not only a counter-productive strategy. It also discredits the significant contribution Lib Dems have made, and are continuing to make, in the national interest.

Like me, the great Paddy Ashdown naturally preferred working with Labour to co-operation with the Conservatives. But he famously said, after Clegg's announcement that we would be entering coalition with Cameron's party: "I may hate the Tories but **** it, I'm with you." If this giant of the Liberal left can be supportive of the coalition, why shouldn't we?

Let's be more positive about our government. Be proud to be a Lib Dem!


Anonymous said...

A brilliant post Andrew and I totally agree with everything you have said.

Anonymous said...

A supply & confidence arrangement would have been a far better road to go down, not holding a GE within 5 minutes could easily have been a pre-condition of such an arrangement. If you'd gone down that route Labour could have been finished, with Clegg the defacto leader of the opposition.

But he chose power over principle and sold out big time. I mean really how can a party have spent 13 odd years denouncing tuition fees, have every candidate sign a personal pledge (which recognised it was unlikely that you'd win a majority government) to vote against any increase. Then not only vote for it but try and spin it as somehow better that students would be paying an extra £6000 pa. I am still shocked by the sheer bloody check of Clegg in doing what he did.

Andrew said...

Gareth - many thanks! Annonymous - I don't accept that Clegg sold out for power over principle. You're entitled to your view of course. A supply and confidence deal would have been unlikely to have stopped Cameron calling a snap GE whenever he thought he could win one. But even if it could, we would have been accused of propping up an unpopular Tory government without having the same opportunities to influence policy. I fail to see how Labour would have been finished.

Supply and confidence seems popular because it would have allowed us to cherry pick which government policies we supported. But that too was laden with risks. How could anyone take seriosuly a party that shirks the opportunity to enter government in exchange for an easy life? Not to mention the fact that supply and confidence would not have led to stable government, at least as far as the markets were concerned. There were real risks to the economy of going down that route.

The tuition fees issue was handled badly. In 22 Days in May (David Laws' account which anyone with an interest in this really should read) while it is clear there was a lot more going on that simply "selling out for power", it is worrying how small tuition fees loomed in the minds of the negotiators compared with, say, PR. I am sure there could have been some way to have negotiated a better position on it, although there is no denying that the Browne Review would have to be considered seriously once its findings were announced and it would have been unwise to pre-empt it.

It was, however, plainly ill-conceived to have promised to vote AGAINST tuition fees, whatever we believe as a party, when it seemed likely that we would go into coalition with one of two parties fiercely supporting fees. We could have maintained principled opposition on this issue, insisting on our long-term opposition to fees while supporting improvements to the package being offered. There is no inconsistency in this, but making such a pledge in the first instance undermined this approach.

In the event, both the Conservative Party's position and the Browne Review recommendations were significantly improved upon. The £6,000-£9,000 fees stick in my throat a bit, especially given my problems with HE funding (which you can read elsewhere), but that is of course only one of the changes to HE provision. Look again at some of the others. The NUS came out this week and admitted some positive progress had been made, largely because of Lib Dem involvement.

As far as I know, I am still a member of a party that supports the abolition of tuition fees, as reinforced at our Scottish conference last October. I am also a member of a party which, in government, is making tough decisions during a tough time. I prefer being a serious party of government to the option of standing on the sidelines, opportunistically supporting whatever was useful for short-term gain and sniping at what we don't like. That really isn't grown-up politics.