Lessons of Coalition: what do the Lib Dems need to learn from the first 3 years?

by Stephen Tall on July 30, 2013

ldv coalition lessonsWe’re more than three years in. What started in the Rose Garden has turned into a bed of thorns. The quieter summer weeks are as good a time as any to reflect on the key lessons the Lib Dems need to learn from this stint in government. Who knows? We may have a second chance after 2015: best to plan ahead now to avoid the obvious pitfalls we fell into this time (tuition fees, NHS Bill, secret courts) as well as to max-out the successes we’ve delivered (tax-cuts for the low-paid, the ‘pupil premium’, new apprenticeships).

Over the next few days, we’ll be running a daily feature, ‘Lessons of Coalition’ to which those of us who contribute to LibDemVoce will be adding. But we welcome reader contributions as well. The word limit is no more than 450 words, and please focus on just one lesson you think the party needs to learn. Simply email your submission to voice@libdemvoice.org. Here’s mine for starters…

Stronger policy development and campaigning on issues that matter to the public (AKA where’s our liberal equivalent of the benefits cap?)

My key take-away isn’t original — it’s one made by Mark Pack last year in a self-explanatorily titled post: The Lib Dems’ policy shortage. As a party we love nothing better than a good policy row. The trouble is we too often allow our debates to be defined reactively by our opponents’ agenda. We passionately argue for/against free schools or the NHS Bill or the top-rate of tax. They’re all interesting debates to be had. But they don’t move us much further towards identifying liberal solutions to improve education or health-care, or to make the tax system fairer.

The three policy successes I identified in my intro — taking the poorest out of income tax, dedicating additional money to pupils from low-income households, opening job opportunities to young people — are practical, liberal ways to create a fairer society that were capable of being delivered in government. And in focusing on jobs, the economy and schools they tackle the major issues raised by voters on the doorstep.

But what’s next? Where are the big ideas to follow-up? Let’s take welfare, for example. The bedroom tax is a crude, unfair attempt to solve a genuine problem: the mis-allocation of housing which means some people are occupying houses with spare rooms while others are under-housed and in dire need of somewhere bigger to live. It’s easy to oppose the bedroom tax, but that won’t fix the problem. We need a better short-term alternative to offer the public, especially as addressing the short supply of social housing will take many years.

Or take immigration, where we have the right policy — an earned route to citizenship for illegal immigrants — but have failed to take up the challenge of persuading the public; instead our leader wants to ditch it rather than attempt the bipartisan approach which was recently approved in the US Senate.

In the easy days of opposition we could only imagine being in government. We lacked the experience of having to get to grips with the nitty-gritty reality of implementable policy detail. We don’t have that excuse now. Instead, our task is much, much harder. Not only do we need the fully worked through policies which give our manifesto credibility and enthuse party activists, we need also to work up the bite-size policies achievable within the compromise of Coalition that will nevertheless move us in a liberal direction. Because if we don’t claim that space, as we so effectively have on taxation but have generally failed to do on public services, we can be sure the other party we’re in Coalition will do it for us, whether Tory or Labour.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.