“Was it worth it?” My take on the Lib Dem record in Coalition

by Stephen Tall on September 17, 2015

lib hist coverThe latest issue of the Journal of Liberal History is a special issue focusing on the Coalition, 2010–15.

It includes an essay by me under the general heading, ‘Why did it go wrong?’, with my contribution titled ‘Decline and Fall: how Coalition killed the Lib Dems (almost)’, alongside those of Matthew Huntbach, Sir Nick Harvey, John Pugh and David Howarth.

Here’s an excerpt, where I ask the question “Was it worth it?”, looking at the profit-and-loss account, the debits and credits of the Lib Dems’ record in government:

The Lib Dems were not short of achievements. There wasn’t a senior Lib Dem who’s wasn’t able to rehearse, when challenged “But what have you done?”, the line that the our three of our top four 2010 priorities – tax-cuts for low-earners, the Pupil Premium, the Green Investment Bank – had been delivered. Or who wouldn’t point to other policies – like infant free school meals, or same-sex marriage, or more apprenticeships – which were successfully pushed by the Lib Dems in office. Or who wouldn’t highlight Conservative policies, such as hire-and-fire at will or repeal of the Human Rights Act or the proposed “snoopers’ charter”, which the Lib Dems had vetoed. It is a creditable litany, especially for a party with just nine per cent of MPs.

The trouble was the public didn’t notice. At least they were even-handed, ignoring not only our triumphs but also our disasters and treating both those imposters just the same. As the British Election Study, which has been examining how and why the public votes as they do in every election since 1964, noted: “The Lib Dems did not do so badly because they were blamed for the failings of the Coalition; rather, the majority of voters simply seem to have felt that they were an irrelevant component of the last government.”

Two examples suffice. Among the 44 per cent of voters who though the economy was getting better, just 19 per cent credited the Lib Dems compared to 73 per cent who thought it was thanks to the Conservatives. Meanwhile, of the two-thirds of voters who thought the NHS had got worse under the Coalition, just 19 per cent held the Lib Dems responsible while 69 per cent pinned the blame on the Tories.

Unfair? Mostly, yes. But like sailors complaining about the sea, it’s pointless to wag our finger at the voters. Moreover, I don’t think I was the only Lib Dem who, as the Coalition drew to a close, felt a nagging worry that while our party’s successes were things which the Conservatives had little trouble with, the Conservatives’ successes (too-tight-too-soon austerity, over-harsh crackdowns on social security like the ‘bedroom tax’, Andrew Lansley’s pointlessly expensive health reforms) were things we should have had no truck with.

Sure, our ministers did their best, and yes, the Coalition was markedly less right-wing, and in some areas even quite liberal, compared to full-blown Tory rule. But – let us ask ourselves honestly – did we truly succeed in moving the country in a sufficiently liberal direction for enough people during our five years in government given the price we ended up paying?

Because it wasn’t just in May 2015 that the Lib Dems were wiped out. That was simply the culmination of five years of humiliating defeats at every level of representative government. In the European parliament, 11 of our 12 MEPs were defeated. In Scotland, we lost 12 of the 17 seats we were defending. (Wales, where we lost only one of our previous six AMs, was a relative success.) Our local government base was hacked down year after year, from 3,944 councillors in 2010 to just 1,801 in 2015. Today we control six councils, down from 25 in 2010. Only in the unelected House of Lords has Lib Dem representation grown.

For five years of restraining the Conservatives at Westminster, plus a handful of policy advances, the Lib Dems sacrificed decades of hard-won gains across the country. The opportunity cost of lost liberal influence has been huge.

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