Lessons of Coalition (8): what do we Lib Dems need to learn?

August 10, 2013 1:57 PM
By Robin McGhee in Liberal Democrat Voice

CoalitiobLibDemVoice is running a daily feature, 'Lessons of Coalition', to assess the major do's and don'ts learned from our experience of the first 3 years in government. Reader contributions are welcome, either as comments or posts. 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 and copy info@eastmidslibdems.org.uk.

Today Robin McGhee, co-treasurer of Liberal Youth, shares his thoughts.

We should organise ministers better

When entering coalition, Nick Clegg decided to spread out his party's influence across government so that every aspect of the party's manifesto could be implemented, at least in part. He did this by appointing ministers in nearly every government department- either as the Cabinet minister heading the department or as a junior minister running one part of it. The results have been mixed.

On the one hand the Lib Dems can indeed claim to have implemented uniquely liberal policies across government, frequently spearheaded by tenacious junior ministers against the will of the more senior Tory minister in their department.

On the other hand, it has created a situation where the Lib Dems have been tainted by the all worst excesses of Conservative government, and where we have often been obliged to compromise on our own policies because of the presence of Conservatives in every department.

A future coalition could consider a different approach. Instead of spreading our desperately limited resources thinly across government, we could divide up government departments by party in their entirety.

I'm sure many Liberal Democrats would agree with me if I suggested that complete Lib Dem control of the Home Office and Energy & Climate Change departments would utterly transform government policy in those arenas. We currently have five Cabinet Ministers- it seems reasonable to suggest we could ask for full control of a similar number of departments as the price of a future coalition. We could take responsibility for their decisions while legitimately absenting ourselves of responsibility for policies implemented by the other party in its own departments.

Of course there are many objections that could be raised to such a system. There is little point denying whipping would be more difficult as a party's MPs would often have to vote for policies of the other party. But there is arguably little difference between that and what the current coalition requires.

Some might argue that such a situation could not be understood by the public. But that is exactly what people used to say about coalitions full stop. The public are not idiots; they understand compromises and different kinds of compromises.

Dividing up departments and policy areas would allow the Liberal Democrats to implement our own policies in areas we know to be closest to our hearts. It would require sacrifice. I am not alone in going pale at the prospect of an all-Tory Department of Work and Pensions, Health or Local Government. But I also know there are many Tories (and Labourites) who would gyrate with horror at the prospect of an all-Lib Dem Home Office. We should be bold.

Previously Published:

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

Mark Valladares: Better party communications responding to the realities of governing

Gareth Epps: Government: What's Occurrin?

Nick Thornsby: Making a success of coalition government as a concept

Caron Lindsay: That old "walk a mile in each others' shoes" thing works

Louise Shaw: One member, one vote for all party elections

Mark Pack: The invisible ministers should up their game, or be sacked

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