Tag: liberal democrats

Book review: Coalition by David Laws

Coalition: The Inside Story of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government by David Laws does exactly what it says on the tin. It is the story of the Coalition running from 2010-15 from the point of view of someone at the heart of the action on the Liberal Democrat side. David Laws was a member of the negotiating team which took the party into the Coalition and a regular attendee at meetings of the Quad (where differences between the Coalition parties were thrashed out). Later he was a secretary of state in Education.

Laws finishes the book by answering three questions which I list below and are a useful way of organising this review.

Did the coalition work as a form of government?

The Coalition lasted the full parliamentary term, contrary to what many people expected. Both parties in the Coalition implemented significant chunks of their manifesto, and there didn’t seem to be many great dramas over votes unexpectedly lost. The members of the coalition seemed to get on OK, there was a dispute resolution system involving the Quad (Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, David Cameron and George Osborne) and, in extremis, David Cameron and David Clegg alone. Laws appears a rather amiable chap and seemed to get along with many of his Coalition opposite numbers, particularly Oliver Letwin, Ken Clarke, George Osborne, even Michael Gove (whom he also found infuriating).

Laws writes quite a lot about his experiences in the Department for Education, and it becomes increasingly clear to me that the stories you see about chaos in government are typically an “inside job”. In this case Gove and his advisor Dominic Cummings briefing against the free school meals Laws championed. You can see Cummings hand in the briefings against Cameron now they are on opposite sides of the EU referendum debate. It follows from similar internecine struggles during the Blair and Brown years, and you can see it now in Corbyn’s Labour party. It is not absent in the Liberal Democrats, Laws highlights that part of the pain of tuition fees for the party was in the deep division within the party. Regardless of what had been achieved, half the party would remain unconvinced and if the party doesn’t believe then what hope persuading the public? Vince Cable’s frequent, contrary, interventions on the economy had a similar effect. And the polling done by his friend, Matthew Oakshott to undermine Nick Clegg. 

The accusation that senior Tories act very directly and explicitly in their own self-interest and that of their major donors is all the more damning coming from someone who clearly has a lot of time for them. Areas like the response to the Leveson enquiry are muted because of Tory Party enthusiasm for keeping papers on side. The proposed Mansion Tax is quashed to keep Tory party donors onside, it being raised by both Labour and Liberal Democrats is welcomed though. The Tories, particularly George Osborne, were repeatedly looking to cut the welfare bill (except for pensioners) largely because they didn’t see claimants as “their people”.

The “English Votes for English Laws” announcements made on the day of the Scottish referendum victory very much put a dampener on the result, and was done by Cameron for short-term gain.

After the 2015 election we can see that Liberal Democrats had a substantial restraining influence on the Tories in power, the distributional impact of changes for the budget is much more heavily skewed against lower income groups than it was under the Coalition (see here for the 2010-15 figures and here for the 2015-19). Legislation like the parliamentary boundary changes and the “Snooper’s Charter” are now going ahead, previously blocked by Liberal Democrats.  

What were it’s achievements?

The Liberal Democrat achievements in government have been summarised in Mark Pack’s rather fine infographic or the eponymous What the Hell Have the LibDems Done? website.

In summary:

  • Increased personal tax allowance to £10600 from £6475 in 2010;
  • Pupil premium / free school meals;
  • Pensions triple lock;
  • Overseas aid target;
  • Early years education entitlement;
  • Shared parental leave;
  • Pensions and benefit uprating in line with high inflation;
  • Equal marriage;
  • Mental health access standards;

The introduction of equal marriage was a surprise bonus, not in anyone’s manifesto but pushed through by Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone with the support of Theresa May despite continually opposition from backbench Tories and surprisingly, initial opposition from Labour and Stonewall.

Constitutional reform was the area where Liberal Democrats fell down, not getting either electoral reform or reform of the House of Lords. Neither of these are areas where the public shows any interest, and nor do they have the support of either Labour of Tory parties so perhaps failure was inevitable. In contrast to the EU referendum and the Scottish referendum there appears to be no call for a second referendum on AV.

What could Liberal Democrats have done better?

It was widely touted in the Liberal Democrats that coalition would be electorally damaging, given the experience of other smaller liberal parties in coalition in Europe and elsewhere. I think we gradually took this to heart as we lost councillors, then MEPs and finally all but eight of our MPs but none of us were really prepared for the final blow. Now following the first local and Scottish parliament elections after the end of the Coalition we are starting to win back seats and grow support.

Much of our loss in votes came pretty much immediately that we formed a coalition with the Tories, so one thing we could have done is not formed a coalition. I don’t support this idea, David Laws doesn’t support this idea, and he cites a whole load of other Liberal Democrats who don’t support this idea. The last 5 years have been the best time to be a Liberal Democrat at least since I joined the party in about 1990, our policies actually got implemented in government – which is the whole point of being a political party!

Inevitably attention will turn to the tuition fees vote, Laws’ first prescription for this is not to have made the promise to scrap tuition fees in the 2010 election. His second prescription, to have vetoed the idea is probably right in retrospect but didn’t happen because we were still trying to work out how to make coalition work and weren’t confident of our actions. As it stands the current tuition fee policy works, in the sense that enrolment in universities and enrolment from lower income groups continues to rise. It is a graduate tax in all but name with the advantage that you don’t avoid it by emigrating and it can be collected from EU students.

The NHS Bill is another idea which Liberal Democrats should have vetoed, largely in my view because it was unhelpful at a time when the NHS was supposed to be making large efficiency savings. It would also have helped the Tories in not damaging their fragile reputation over the NHS. Lansley was sacked as Secretary of State for Health for contaminating the brand of the Tories over the NHS, to be replaced by Jeremy Hunt(!).

From a more technical point of view Laws toys with the idea of going for more senior Secretary of State positions in the government rather than the more junior ministerial positions that were taken, Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg both held quite senior positions but they were someone else’s deputies. Our strength in Cabinet was propertional to our share of seats rather than our share of votes. Other Liberal Democrats such as Vince Cable held top positions but in less important departments.  

The style of the book is crisp, it rattles through around 50 short chapters. The quoted dialogue sounds incredibly wooden, I recommend not buying any fiction Laws’ might write! If you’re interested in politics then I thoroughly recommend this book, if nothing else it gives a clear insight into how coalition government can work in the UK. For Liberal Democrats it is an essential record of what we achieved in government. Whilst there may be more detached, historical reports in the future there is unlikely to be one better from the core of the action.

Everyone is awesome, no one is to blame

The Liberal Democrats have members from all walks of life. I, for example, am a scientist and sometime software developer. To be honest I’m more of a manager than a developer. There are many tools for software management, one of them is the Agile framework. This is a relatively new innovation and the details are unimportant here but I think there are a couple of things we can learn from Agile. The first is the title of this blog post:

Everyone is awesome, no one is to blame

This mantra is something we bear in mind when we look back over a period or a particular event. The benefit of this approach is most apparent when you are faced with a situation where the mantra is left behind: “You messed up, you are to blame”. Under these circumstances the protagonists in the retrospective become entrenched in their positions and unwilling to open up as to why something happened. It becomes more important to defend your side and make sure someone else is to blame. This approach is unhelpful, and ultimately you have to go forward and continue working with those found to be to blame in a poisoned atmosphere.

We as Liberal Democrats face this risk. I’ve been a member of the party since 1988, it was only after the 2010 general election that I realised that the Liberal Democrats had factions! In a former life I worked with a student from Yugoslavia, she had fled the country with her family at the time of the war. We talked about Yugoslavia and I asked her once whether she knew in her class at school who was a Serb and who a Croat. She said: “Of course not, we were all the same”. In Yugoslavia demagogues dredged up division where none previously existed.

I joined the Liberal Democrats because I wanted to be with people like me, not with some people like me and that other bunch who I couldn’t abide. Schism is for socialists ;-) We mustn’t let any dissection of what is coming to be known as “Cockroach Thursday” become an excuse for factionalism and finger pointing, other parties have tried that approach and it doesn’t work.

The second tool for analysis you might enjoy is “5 whys”. Parents of toddlers will know be somewhat familiar with this technique, used for establishing root causes. It’s very easy to jump to a cause for an event in one bound but it isn’t necessarily right. The “5 whys” method invites you to question the first cause you come up with repeatedly with further “whys”.

  1. Why did we lose? We broke our promise on tuition fees
  2. Why did we make our promise on tuition fees? Because the NUS presented us with a pledge to sign
  3. Why did we sign the pledge on tuition fees? We wanted the votes of students
  4. Why did we want the votes of students? Because we wanted to win parliamentary seats
  5. Why did we want to win parliamentary seats? So we could implement our policies which we feel are best for Britain.

The important point here is not my particular responses to the questions rather that I haven’t stopped at the first one, and each answer leads to further questions which we may return to later.

For my next post I will highlight the use of the Gedankenexperiment in the analysis of political problems.

A letter to a constituent…

A constituent wrote to me asking why he received lots of election literature from Labour, Tory and UKIP candidates and not so much from the Liberal Democrats, this was my reply:

You should expect to get one Liberal Democrat leaflet over the campaign, for parliamentary elections each party gets one freepost per constituency, I received mine today. Other literature is funded by the local party, for example we’re paying for a wraparound advert on one of the local newspapers which you might see (that will cost £1000s). Aside from that I have about 300 leaflets sitting on the floor next to me waiting for delivery – it’ll take me about 3 hours to deliver them by hand. Parliamentary constituencies have about 50000 voters so it costs hundreds of pounds to print a leaflet for everyone and thousands of hours to deliver them. The City of Chester Liberal Democrats Party is quite small (a hundred or so members), and we don’t have a huge amount of money hence you receive very few leaflets.

If you see a poster in someone’s window it’s either because they are a party member or because the Liberal Democrats have canvassed (knocked on the door and asked who they will vote for) the occupant and they’ve agreed to put up a poster. Canvassing is more time consuming than leafleting, if you lived in the Hoole Ward of the city then you will likely have been canvassed and also seen Mark Williams, Alan Rollo and Bob Thompson doing their "street surgery" on the high street because Bob is local councillor for that ward (the only Liberal Democrat councillor on the local authority) and so it’s a target for the forthcoming local elections which are run on the same day as the parliamentary elections. 

Nationally, the Liberal Democrats target resources to winnable seats, at the 2010 elections we targeted Wrexham and Warrington South as local seats we might win. This is because under the first past the post electoral system it doesn’t matter what your national share of the vote is, it doesn’t matter what your share of the vote is in any particular constituency. The important thing is to have more votes than any of your opponents in a constituency. Since the 2010 election we’ve lost a lot of local councillors, and all of the MPs we currently have are under threat. So we are targeting resources at the constituencies we currently hold (with a very few exceptions) and hoping to keep as many of those as possible. As an example I get regular emails from the national party asking for help in getting Lisa Smart elected in Hazel Grove.

The City of Chester is a Labour/Conservative marginal – hence the visits by David Cameron and Ed Miliband over the last couple of weeks, and the large number of leaflets from their parties.

Other Liberal Democrats might be a bit miserable about all this but I joined the party in 1989 and the first general election I was involved in (1992), we got 20 seats and we should do better than that this time.

Hope that answers your question, and that you vote for Bob Thompson!

“Nick Clegg plans more employee ownership”

In the news today: “Nick Clegg plans more employee ownership”, based on a speech to an audience in the City, citing John Lewis as a model of employee participation. John Lewis goes beyond simple employee share ownership, I own shares in Unilever – sadly this hasn’t enabled me to prevent them from cutting my pension. Channel 4’s Fact Check blog has confirmed that employee-ownership often makes for better companies.

Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna response was:

…Mr Clegg was following Labour’s lead on responsible capitalism…

he should really check out the 2010 Liberal Democrat General Election Manifesto 2010, on p27 it says:

We believe that mutuals, co-operatives and social enterprises have an important role to play in the creation of a more balanced and mixed economy. Mutuals give people a proper stake in the places they work, spreading wealth through society, and bringing innovative and imaginative business ideas to bear on meeting local needs.


I’d argue that Labour was following the Liberal Democrats on this.

Chuka Umunna is also the chap, who said on twitter of Ed Miliband’s Radio 4 interview:

Very strong, assured performance from @Ed_Miliband on@BBCr4today this a.m

Funnily enough, Peter Hain said exactly the same thing:

V strong and assured performance by @Ed_Miliband against Humphreys @BBCr4today

Not strong evidence for original thinking.


Screenshot here, if you don’t believe me.

The Eurozone

There has been much excitement over David Cameron’s use of the veto at the recent European negotiations over rescuing the Eurozone. For people that don’t like Cameron for political reasons these are obviously the worst of times, for a large fraction of his Tory backbenchers these are the best of times.

The problem the Eurozone has is that when the system was set up some members lied through their teeth to meet the convergence criteria which allowed them entry and none of them where prepared to comply with the constraints on their fiscal policy (tax and spending) after the Eurozone had formed. Now, when times are difficult, these shortcomings have become very obvious. The solution towards which the rest of Europe are heading is to treat the Eurozone as a proper national economy with a European Central Bank which takes on the mantle of a national central bank and a degree of fiscal discipline not yet common across the member states. This would weaken the powers of the constituent nation states.

Sarkozy’s comments are quite clearly self-serving, he wishes to portray the UK veto as a result of of Cameron trying to protect the City because that is the French see the cause of the problem as the Anglo-Saxon economic model, not the Greek economic model. Angela Merkel’s position is a little more subtle: she would probably really welcome a UK that stood alongside Germany at the heart of Europe but she has her own problems with the German constitution which limit her flexibility in fully throwing her weight behind the Euro.

I have long been a pro-European and given the choice I would have taken the UK into the Euro at the very beginning, but that didn’t happen because John Major negotiated an opt-out and then Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (more the later than the former) kept us out of the Euro. These days I have my doubts, I can see a Euro zone with a core membership of nations I would trust to run a whelk store running quite nicely to the benefit of all concerned but that’s not the situation we are in now.

This attitude is reflected in the following passage in the Liberal Democrat 2010 manifesto:

The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

We believe that it is in Britain’s long-term interest to be part of the euro. But Britain should only join when the economic conditions are right, and in the present economic situation, they are not. Britain should join the euro only if that decision were supported by the people of Britain in a referendum.

The Guardian has leapt to it’s tired, old Nazi collaborator meme (here) in its description of Nick Clegg. To be fair there have been a lot of tired, old Nazi memes (appeasement being the favoured route of the right and some Lib Dems). It’s somewhat ironic that effectively the demand is that Nick Clegg must exercise a veto over David Cameron to not exercise a veto. For the enemies of the Liberal Democrats they will never be able to do any right in coalition: these enemies will laud the original policies of the Liberal Democrats (which often they did not vote for) and demand every one is implemented, and that the Coalition must fall if these demands are not met.

David Cameron has put himself into a tricky position in part through his own actions – withdrawing from political groupings in the EU, and reforming with only the most fringe characters, and in part through the party he inherits: John Major said he could here the sound of “flapping white coats” as one of them approached. Cameron did make the only decision he could: any treaty agreed would face parliament where it would lose because the Labour Party would side with a large Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party and even if it passed that hurdle it would fall at a referendum.

The Labour Party find themselves in an interesting position though, they cannot say they would support the current treaty proposal. Resorting only to the famous route directions: “If I was going there I wouldn’t start from here” but actually the relationship with Europe has changed little in the 18 months since the general election.

For other nations in Europe, to use the old breakfast analogy: the chicken has an interest, the pig is committed. All the other non-Eurozone countries are on some sort of track to join the Euro – we, uniquely, are not. This has been the case since before the election and it remains the core of our issue. Cameron’s posturing to satisfy his eurosceptic wing is not helpful, and a better statesman would perhaps have achieved some consensus outside the core Eurozone countries but fundamentally this is window dressing and the other members of the EU are already on a different track, they have been for years.