Clegg opens up his “fairly thick Black Book” of Lib Dem plans blocked by the Tories – but is it enough?

by Stephen Tall on December 16, 2013

Last week, David Cameron revealed he’s keeping a “little black book” of Tory ideas he’s desperate to implement which have been thwarted by the Lib Dems. This prompted an impressively swift imagining by Lib Dem HQ of what that black book might contain – you can read it here.

It also prompted Lib Dem blogger Richard Morris pointedly to ask at the New Statesman, ‘Where is Clegg’s “little Black Book” of Lib Dem policies blocked by the Tories?’

… thinking back over the last few years, Lord’s Reform and the Mansion Tax aside, it’s hard to think what Lib Dem policies we’ve had blazing rows about in government that haven’t seen the light of day. Not even the AV referendum – we had it, we just screwed it up. That’s not to say there haven’t been such rows; just that we don’t talk about them much. And sure, I can list a ton of brilliant Lib Dem policies – Pensions reform, tax thresholds, Pupil Premium, free school meals – that we’ve achieved in government. But you can’t help but feel we were pushing on an open Tory door here, given they were all cracking ideas. …

I keep hearing that we’re going to spend the next 18 months attacking the Tories and Labour as idealogues, more interested in promoting what they believe than what it actually needed to continue to dig us out of the economic mire. Can this possibly be true? We’re going to attack other parties because they ‘believes very strongly in particular principles and tries to follow them carefully’ (to use the dictionary definition)? I wonder if we’ve properly thought that through?

Today Richard’s question was asked directly of Nick Clegg at his monthly press conference. Here was the Lib Dem leader’s reply:

I have a fairly thick volume of things that I’d love to do if I was prime minister, which is not of course possible within a coalition with the Conservatives.

Housing today is a good example, I’ve wanted to see community land auctions, which I think would be a great way to get more land leased, to get more houses built on them; that’s something the Conservatives are very reluctant to endorse. I’ve been a long-standing advocate of a planned approach to garden cities, particularly in that part of the country between Oxford and Cambridge, where lots of people want to live, where we don’t have enough places for people to live. Again, the Conservatives have stopped that. I think we would have seen more housing on a quicker scale if we’d been on our own in government.

I alluded earlier to the fact that I find it very frustrating that despite the coalition commitment, which I wrote into the coalition agreement, on reintroducing exit checks at our borders, that seems to have been not acted upon as quickly as it should have been. I think we probably would, frankly, have acted a bit faster on some of the structural problems in the banking system. I’m sure we can compare endless lists.

(Hat-tip: George Eaton.)

Community land auctions, garden cities, exit checks at borders. Nothing wrong with the policies, though I’d question whether they’d cut it on the doorstep.

Richard Morris’s point remains an important one. Though I think Nick Clegg’s strategy of fighting the next election as the party of ‘the liberal centre’ is the right one – fairer than the Tories, more responsible than Labour – I don’t underestimate the risk that the Lib Dems end up being seen as risk-averse, triangulating politicos who only care about staying in power and forget why they wanted it in the first place.

It’s right that people know we stopped the Tories doing bad things – but it’s not enough. We can’t simply be seen as guerillas in our own government, wreaking more havoc from within than we ever could outside it. We have also to talk about the positive – and, yes, even radical – things we want to do. That doesn’t mean signing up to hostages to fortune we can’t deliver (“Tuition Fees 2.0″) but it does mean emphasising the positive and distinctive reasons we want to be in government.

As I wrote in July in our LibDemVoice series, Lessons of Coalition:

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, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.