Wednesday 6 March 2013

The day the party fell out of love with the coalition

I wondered when it would happen.

The huge drop in opinion poll support during the first months of the coalition didn’t do it.

The decision to break the pledge on tuition fees in the autumn of 2010 didn’t do it.

The terrible results in the local elections of 2011 and 2012 didn’t do it.

The Tories’ awful NHS reforms – which were not in the coalition agreement – didn’t do it.

The failure of the coalition’s austerity policies – which the Liberal Democrat 2010 manifesto correctly predicted would fail – didn’t do it.

But somehow, Monday night’s vote in the House of Commons on secret courts – in which all but seven Liberal Democrat MPs backed the government – has done it. The party has finally fallen out of love with the coalition. And it has probably fallen out of love with Nick Clegg as well.

Why should secret courts be a watershed when other issues were not? There are two likely reasons. First, secret courts is an issue that unites grassroots Liberal Democrat members from left to right – it is not a controversial government policy for which one faction has a sneaking regard. Second, it is a fundamental issue of civil liberties – and liberty is the basic raison d’être of Liberals.

It is not yet clear how the party’s disillusionment will play out. There will probably be an emergency motion at next weekend’s spring conference in Brighton. Otherwise, members are still gathering their thoughts, as Caron Lindsay’s post on Liberal Democrat Voice indicates.

Meanwhile, as Richard Morris suggests, the parliamentary party seems almost to have wilfully mismanaged the situation and done everything it can to alienate the membership.

Nick Clegg has mishandled the secret courts debate throughout, pretty much as he did last spring with the proposed bill on interception of communications. He has not alienated party members for the usual reason leaders do it (a stage-managed attempt to pick a fight with the grassroots to show who’s boss). He has done it because he has a tin ear for the party’s culture, the result of being fast-tracked into the leadership without serving a sufficient apprenticeship.

For now, we can only guess Clegg’s precise motives. As Jonathan Calder points out, the leader (who has recently grown fond of sending regular e-mails to the membership) has been curiously silent since Monday’s vote.


  1. I don't actually accept the premise of your argument. We never were in love with the coalition. We accepted it as a slightly uncomfortable but necessary arrangement through which we could deliver more Lib Dem policies than had ever been implemented before. But in love? With working with Tories? No. Definitely not.

    You are right, though, to emphasise how important the secret courts issue is, though. This can't be dismissed as the Awkward Squad having a whinge. I know very few ordinary Liberal Democrat members who aren't livid about it. Not just questioning, but proper, actual livid.

    It's bad enough to see so many of our MPs vote for this - and this isn't just about Nick Clegg. What is Ming thinking? And Charles K? And Alistair Carmichael for that matter? All three of these have good civil liberties credentials.

    The party's own experts on the Bill, Crockart and Huppert both voted against the party line the other night. Why was their advice not followed?

    The real thing that sticks in my craw is that so many of them are adopting the appalling "but it's not fair to give money to terrorists" line. Why can't they see that this makes it so much easier to cover up torture?

  2. The decision to break the pledge on tuition fees
    It should be emphasised that the party did not break a pledge; certain individual members - the proximity of a ministerial car seems to have been an influence - did. I'm proud to say that all Welsh LibDem MPs kept their pledge and voted against the increase.


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