The strange death of coalition Britain

Peter Black says that the Liberal Democrats have rebuilt successfully before now.

For those of us who have been in politics for a long time, May 7th was like Dejá Vu all over again.

In 1992 the country had been spooked by the thought of a coalition government and in the last few days had decided they would rather keep the devil they knew. On Thursday it seemed that the last minute rush for the safety of majority government happened in the final 24 hours and took all of us by surprise.

Personally, I had thought it would be very different. That was largely because I took comfort in the individual constituency polling conducted by Lord Ashcroft and my own party that suggested that the reputation of sitting MPs and tactical voting would help the Liberal Democrats survive with a reduced but still significant Parliamentary rump.

Although some had suggested that there would be a 1992-style surge to the Tories, my assumption had been that it would be very different. I reasoned that the country had now seen that coalitions could work, that despite many controversial issues and problems the Liberal Democrats had done a reasonable job in keeping the Tory right in check and had a good story to tell about what they had achieved.

It was my view that if there was a last minute surge then it would be to the Liberal Democrats, so as to ensure that in a no overall majority Parliament, there would be some consistency and stability in any future coalition.

Speaking to people afterwards, it seems that many agreed with me that the Liberal Democrats had been a restraining force for the good. Unfortunately, the uncertainty caused by polls that showed that a future government might have to consist of three or more parties, possibly including UKIP or the SNP, caused them to opt for the Tories in large numbers.

That decision was helped along by the huge amount of money being thrown at marginal constituencies by the Tories, including many held by the Liberal Democrats. People in these areas were receiving weekly missives from the Conservatives using paid for delivery, starting well before Christmas. That does not come cheaply.

In these circumstances the decision by the Liberal Democrats campaign team to start issuing negotiating red lines and to talk up future coalitions became self-defeating. We were no longer talking about our own values and policies, but about power and compromise. We were asking people to vote for us as second best to other parties. If anything that seems to have accelerated our demise at the polls.

The extraordinary surge in membership that the Liberal Democrats have experienced over the last week or so shows that for many there is still a role for liberalism in this country. It is worth quoting from an article by one new member as to why he took the plunge and came back to the party:

‘I have decided it is time to stand up. Stand up for a party that has done great things over the past five years. After the torrid election results we need to regroup, rethink, and refocus our collective efforts to pursue a fair, free and tolerant society. We need to learn some lessons from the past five years, admit what went wrong, yet fundamentally be proud for the principles that set us apart. Nick Clegg led the party to an immense surge in support. He and other MPs made some mistakes. We must admit that and move on.’

That seems to reflect the views of many people who have now decided to take the plunge and join the Liberal Democrats. But where do we go from here? And what lessons do the Liberal Democrats need to draw from last Thursday’s debacle for the Assembly elections in 12 months’ time?

The Welsh Liberal Democrats group in the Assembly has consistently hit above its weight. We are widely acknowledged to be effective and cohesive and with a leader who makes Ministers sit up and listen. We have negotiated to have government implement many Liberal Democrats policies including the pupil deprivation grant, reduced travel for 16 and 17 year olds and an extra 5,000 apprenticeships over the next five years. We have been instrumental in ensuring that Wales has stable government.

We have also used our opportunity in government in the UK to significantly advance the devolution agenda, paving the way for a new Wales Act and a funding floor that will guarantee fair funding for the future. That is a good message to sell in 2016.

We need to ensure that we formulate clear messages based on our values of social justice community and empowerment. And we need to get back out there now and start campaigning on those messages and on our record.

Thursday May 7th may have been a set-back for the Liberal Democrats, but we have been there before and we have rebuilt and come back before. The Assembly elections are an important staging post in that process. The party may have been dumped on its backside last week but we are already back on our feet and spoiling for the fight.

Peter Black is an Assembly Member for South Wales West.

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