The next coalition?

Does soul-searching over the 2010–15 coalition leave Liberal Democrats in danger of failing to take the credit for our real achievements in government and undermining our relevance by being reluctant to try again?

Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair: last time Liberal Democrats and Labour planned for coalition

Even before the arrival of Covid19 we were in turbulent times. British politics since the referendum has been highly dysfunctional.

In the 2019 General Election, my sense was that the Tories and Labour had lurched to extremes. On the doorstep I found even Remain supporters switching from us to the Tories for fear of a Corbyn-led government. Labour seemed to have prioritised ideological purity over electability, which was the place from which they were attacking us over the coalition.

Under normal circumstances, their choosing, in Keir Starmer, a leader who would be a credible Prime Minister would change everything and point to a revival of their fortunes and ours. As it is, the proposed changes to constituency boundaries are likely to favour the Tories. If the country is to move away from having an anti-European, authoritarian and incompetent government, we will need to work with Labour — which has to include the possibility of coalition.

The combined effect of Covid19, Brexit and climate change means the country will need something other than a Labour–Tory tension rooted former times. We bring distinctive values to the table — on Europe, liberty, combatting inequality by improving opportunities, the Green agenda, devolution, fairer voting, and the sort of collaborative approach to politics that’s normal in most of Europe. We’d fail the country if we didn’t articulate these, or were unwilling to work with others to make them a reality.

Legacy of the last coalition

There were real achievements in the last coalition. Headlines include increasing the point where people start to pay Income Tax, the Pupil Premium, equal marriage and the Green Investment Bank. Crucially, we showed that coalitions can be stable.

What makes me think Labour’s attacks over the coalition were rooted in a shallow ideology is that, in hustings and interviews, I was surprised at how easy it was to deflect them. Pointing out how much things changed when the Tories started ruling on their own nailed the idea that we were “yellow Tories”. Pointing out that all the main parties went into 2010 with commitments to reduce the deficit nailed the idea that we were “enablers” of cuts that Labour wouldn’t have imposed. Pointing out that a coalition means working with others in the national interest showed us as responsible.

I suspect that Jo Swinson struggled because interviewers realised they had found a vulnerability and exploited it. But it doesn’t have to be like this. In 2015 I heard Sal Brinton give a brilliant defence of our actions over tuition fees, which is a shining example of how the most difficult part of the coalition legacy could be handled.

And for next time

The next General Election is likely to take place against the background of a severe recession. We’ll face a stark choice. On the one hand, we could go for the “comfortable” position of picking up protest votes without having to carry them into action (as Labour did in 2019). Or we can choose the demanding task of advocating Liberal Democrat values clearly and positively, which will mean working with others to make them a reality.

There are lessons to learn from 2010–2015, but we should also be proud enough of what we achieved to be willing to try again.

Originally published on Liberal Democrat Voice, 17 August 2020

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