The election was little more than two weeks ago, though, in truth, the astonishing developments of recent days make it feel like half a lifetime has passed.
This weekend is the first since before the start of the campaign that I have had a moment to catch breath and reflect on the incredible and exhausting roller-coaster of emotions that has carried me through the last few weeks. I am still struggling to get my head around a moment in history that has taken the party to which I have devoted most of my adult life from being the second party of opposition, fighting against media expectations of annihilation, through the incredible highs of Nick Clegg’s performances in the television debates, to the shock and dismay as we lost seats, and, finally, after careful and determined negotiations, on an extraordinary journey into government. Not at any moment had I envisaged the highs and lows of the last seventeen days, nor the conflict of emotion, loyalty and reason that has tested me and many, many party members.
As regular readers of my blog will know, I have never been backward in offering up frank criticisms of the Conservative Party. At the risk of offending “socialist” colleagues (I use the term advisedly these days), I have long mischievously regarded the Labour Party as merely a hundred-year anachronism that, hugely significant in its impact on the politics of the twentieth century, is merely the upstart younger brother of a progressive Liberal tradition that has a far longer and richer history as a counter-weight to the political and societal inhibitions of Conservatism. With that as my starting point, the idea of a coalition with the Conservative Party was never something I had entertained, instead attaching my instincts in terms of coalition in a balanced parliament situation to the romantic notion of a realignment of the left and a partnership with a Labour Party looking to rediscover its sense of purpose.
I use the term ‘romantic’ quite deliberately. That sense that Labour were the natural partner of the Liberal Democrats paid scant regard to the illiberal and authoritarian reality of thirteen years of Labour government, but owed more to my admiration for the integrity of leaders such as Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell who sought the prize of a realignment of the left in order to usher in a new era of liberal reforms. That emotional detachment from political reality governed many of my initial reactions to the General Election result and the truly baffling parliamentary arithmetic delivered by a cynical, angry public to the political class.
Despite an illegal war (yes, it was illegal), huge incursions by the state into our private lives, the threat to traditional British rights such as trial by jury, repeated failure to deliver on reform of the Lords and our electoral system (even though these were manifesto promises), the running down of our rural communities and the ruin of our agricultural industry, the bankrupting of the nation’s finances, and complicity in the ruin of confidence in our Parliament, Labour somehow still felt a more appropriate partner for government. However, listing these abject failures, just as I did in the pause for thought that was created by Nick Clegg’s commitment to allow the party with the greatest mandate to seek to form a government first, forced me to recognise that the political instincts of the Labour Party, still nominally progressive, are as far from my own and my understanding of my party’s as are those of the Conservative Party. More importantly, from the point of view of attempting to come to terms with the political and economic reality of 2010, the Labour Party is exhausted and broken, uncertain of what it believes or what sort of party it should become.
By contrast, the Conservative Party revealed a confident capacity to subordinate expectation, objectives and tradition to the practical necessity of negotiating with its erstwhile political opponent – qualities that had clearly escaped the observations of many commentators who saw minority government as its only route to power. If I am being completely honest, they are qualities that had escaped me, also, my ready preference to hide behind (well-founded!) tribal prejudices proving that I did not know the party I had been campaigning against as well as I liked to believe.
The outcome, a Coalition Agreement and a Coalition Government which sees Liberal Democrats at every ministerial level, is a genuinely radical attempt to confront the challenges facing the country and, in its composition, demonstrates a commitment from both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party to making this arrangement work.
Knowing how many of my fellow party members share my instinct, I am proud at the way the Liberal Democrats both locally and nationally have responded to the challenge set by the electorate. That there was such considered acclaim for the agreement at the special conference convened to provide an opportunity for members to discuss the Coalition Agreement does not detract from the hard questions the party asked itself. We fully recognise that a new and tough challenge will be to promote ourselves as a party of government, making clear the very real impact that having Liberal Democrats in government will have on people’s lives.
Of course the proof of the pudding will be in its eating at the end of this Parliament and the extent to which the Coalition has delivered on its clear commitments. However, the ambition is tremendous and a high benchmark that has the potential to reconnect the public with politicians and provide a real opportunity to break open the old ways of doing things. The list on which this Coalition is determined to deliver includes things I never seriously believed I would see in the programme of a single government: fixed term parliaments to end the game-playing of sitting prime ministers; an opportunity for the country to decide on voting reform, jemmying the crowbar of preferential voting into our creaking and unrepresentative electoral system; reform of the House of Lords; an ambitious plan to green our economy; a Freedom Bill to roll back the powers of the state; huge investment in the schooling of the country’s poorest pupils; and the raising of the income tax threshold to help those on the lowest incomes.
Most of all, this Parliament provides a uniquely important opportunity for all those supporters of electoral reform: to demonstrate that pluralist politics can work and that the national interest is served by a strong and distinctly Liberal voice in government.
Despite the colourful, passionate and necessary rhetoric of the election, my own emerging understanding of this unprecedented situation is that coalition cannot be founded on our deeply-held prejudices as politicians, but instead has to be grounded in an objective assessment of how best to serve the national interest in all its iterations, however personally troubling the accompanying journey might be. I believe Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats and David Cameron’s Conservative Party have made just that assessment, setting aside instinctive and fundamental differences to establish a coincidence of interests to best serve a tired, cynical, yet hopeful public.
I wish them – us – every success.
And I look forward to pressing the case for Liberal Democrat achievements in Government against robust challenges from both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in five years’ time.
You can read the Coalition Agreement, approved by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party 11th May 2010, here:
You can read the Coalition’s Programme for Government, published 20th May 2010, here: