Twelve months ago, an inconclusive general election result gave rise to an historic coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. In a speech today, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg surveyed the past year and shared the lessons that he feels need to be gleaned; allow me to give a party member’s perspective.
As I wrote at the time, there was little choice for the Lib Dems but to enter into a full coalition with the party that had secured the most votes and seats, despite this being the Tories; the counterfactuals were far too unstable and/or untenable.
The vitriolic sentiment that doing so somehow represented a betrayal has been rightly criticised as a myth; I’d say it would have been far more a betrayal of the millions of Lib Dem voters had we shied away from the responsibility of governing.
Had we baulked at the opportunity to implement policies we’d campaigned on we’d still have been on the receiving end of criticism - only this time for choosing the comfort of opposition over the hard choices of government.
Not that we’ve made all the right choices once in power, and I’ll come back to that. Nick was right nonetheless to draw attention to the significant contributions Lib Dems have made within the coalition.
He said the government’s achievements included:
“Cutting income tax for ordinary taxpayers; ending child detention; increasing the state pension; introducing free nursery education for disadvantaged two year olds; adding a quarter of a million apprenticeships; increasing tax on capital gains; reining in the banks; creating a Green Investment Bank and a green deal; and getting more money into schools to help poorer pupils.”
These are distinct Lib Dem policies in two senses - they wouldn’t have been implemented under a Tory minority government, and they are long-standing party policies that we’ve finally got a chance to put into practice; indeed, independent analysis suggests that 75 per cent of out manifesto was delivered by the coalition agreement compared to 60 per cent Tory policies.
The last 12 months have, though, seen low points for the party, which risk overshadowing the aforementioned policy ‘wins’. The clearest demonstration of this came with the fiasco over tuition fees. Nick is right that we’re delivering on the four headline pledges that we insisted on during the formation of the coalition, but was wrong to have dismissed the one policy that most of the public identify with the Lib Dems within those four.
Despite this tactical error there was still a chance to play a better hand, distancing ourselves from a policy the majority of the party and its supporters are unhappy with. We didn’t do so sufficiently, partly I suspect out of fear that the Tories would retaliate by rounding on some of our cherished policies. The acrimonious AV campaign has shown that the latter will happen anyway, giving us more space to make public the differences between the coalition parties.
The Social Liberal Forum has called on the party leadership to do this since long before the tuition fees debate. We’ve called on senior Lib Dems to communicate better which of our policies we’ve ‘won’ on, which Tory policies we’ve blocked (building more prisons, abolishing the Human Rights Act and inheritance tax cuts to name a few) and, crucially, those policies which are outside the coalition agreement that we have every right to improve and oppose.
Andrew Lansley’s misguided NHS reforms clearly represent the latter, and Liberal Democrats have rightly taken a stance on having them improved or rejected. Many Lib Dems would have been happier had this toughness been voiced earlier in proceedings, but now it has, we must deliver. As I wrote over on Liberal Democrat Voice, I have every confidence that the improvements we demanded at conference will be delivered.
The NHS reform story gives us very clear lessons about how our role in the coalition proceeds from here on. Lib Dems need to be more distinct and bold, not just in voicing our differences from the Tories but in ensuring every policy that emerges from government has as much Lib Dem influence as possible.
This will be most crucial on economic matters where, despite Nick’s claim that the two coalition partners are singing from the same page, there remain serious concern about the direction of travel, not least in the public eye.
This is why the SLF’s one day policy conference on June 18th will be so crucial; we are delighted that many senior government ministers will be there to debate and discuss policy and how best to deliver it in coalition.
The past year has taught us much about the trials and tribulations of being a junior partner in government; here’s hoping we learn those lessons and take the coalition in a more liberal, democratic direction in the coming 12 months.