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Coalition,Cuts and Conservatives…post match report

By Angela Harbutt
September 21st, 2010 at 7:25 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in coalition, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats

“Coalition,Cuts and Conservatives” was, when I looked it up ahead of conference, reckoned to be the 5th most popular fringe at conference. And popular it certainly was. Apologies to the hundreds that were turned away as ‘ealth and safety forced us to close the doors.

We had a hairy moment or two in the preceding half hour..not least the fact that conference registration “opening hours” (or closing hours to be more precise) meant that one of our speakers – Lembit Opik – could not actually not get in to conference! Yes, the steward knew who Lembit was (even my mum knows who Lembit is!) and no he was not considered a security threat (though he sounded less certain of this to be honest), but Lembit could not be allowed entry without his pass. The computer said no. All was thankfully resolved when a brilliant conference organiser  re-opened the registration desk so that Lembit could indeed prove he was Lembit. Our thanks to the organisers for that, but how ironic (as the chairman remarked at the time) that the Lib Dems have only been in power a few weeks and have seemingly embraced ID cards so wholeheartedly.

So to the session. I have been asked to precis what was said by the many who could not get in. Always a tough task, and I have kept it to “top line” messages ..but here goes…..

Jeremy Browne MP kicked off. He asked the audience three questions – which (being a minister) he then answered.”Should we cut the deficit?” – Yes he said. He was completely signed up to the fiscal cuts of this government. The sooner  the better.”Should we go into coalition”– Yes he said. There was no other option. The Lib Dems found themselves immediately post election on a desert island with the Tories.  Labour were on a boat, going away from the island and sinking fast . It was NOT an option to sit on the sidelines with the economy teetering on the brink of disaster. “Where next”? Jeremy asked Lib Dems to “hold your nerve”.  Using a football analogy (is he a footie fan ?), we are, he said, in the 7th minute of a football game and there was no need for a change in formation, or start considering substitutes just yet. In a wrap up he made the point that it was important to keep the Lib Dem identity within the coalition – but stressed  that not all aspects of Lib Dems identity were good. E.g. he was eager to change the view that “Lib Dems were not capable of governing”..and the view that “hung parliaments equal chaos”. So, we should hold our nerve …the positive aspects of the Lib Dem’s identity will grow through this parliamentary session and we would NOT be seen as a glorified pressure group but a serious party capable of governing.

Professor Richard Grayson came up next, telling us of  his personal experiences campaigning on the doorstep at the last election and that  government spending cuts was far and away the biggest issue raised. He said that the Lib Dems had campaigned on  the same scale and timescale of cuts as Labour (the Tories deeper and sooner) which made it hard to explain the Lib Dem change within coalition. He did not accept that a Tory minority government was an impossible option at the time and suggested that is was an “ideological drift towards the centre right, by the top echelons of the party” that explained the decision to go with the Tories.  He considered it appropriate for Lib Dem MPs and ministers to voice dissent publicly with coalition government policy (mentioned Vince Cable’s interventions on immigration), saying it was helpful to illustrate to the electorate how coalitions work. People need to witness discussion/debate within the coalition to understand the value and role of the Lib Dems in that government.

Next up was Professor Stephen Haseler (founder member of the Social Democratic Party). He opened by raising concern that the coalition premise to get out of this economic crisis was growth- but that with banks lending much less and the collapse of the global economy meaning little prospect of exports how could there be growth? When there is no growth in the private sector he believed that it was aggravating the situation by cutting public spending. The consequence of this would be economic hardship and unemployment. The coalition government was going to become very unpopular and the Lib Dems would take the brunt of the criticism – we the Lib Dems will be blamed for the crisis. His view  was that it would have been better to have gone down the route of supporting  the Conservative government on a policy by policy basis – that WAS an option – and that the Lib Dem leadership chose power instead and they would have to live with it.

Guido (Paul Staines) came next. Gleefully (and he really did look very happy – though that might have just have been unbounded joy at being at Lib Dem conference) he told us that it had been a 20 year ambition of his to see a Lib/Con coalition and that he (and the chair Mark Littlewood)  had been two of the most prominent people calling for just that during those mad meeting-filled days, post election. Turning to the future, he said that if there was not a double dip (and pointed out that  UK growth was certainly evident currently), we could enjoy an economic bounce in 2013/2014 that would get the Lib Dems re-elected. He expressed a desire for the the Lib Dems to become the second largest party in the country and believed that was attainable – and, controversially for the assembled audience, he thought that some form of electoral pact with the Conservatives would be necessary (oh how the audience hissed at this). He finished by saying that the prize of keeping the Labour party out of power was worth fighting for.

Julian Harris (Liberal Vision) followed Guido.  He started by quoting Hislop…. that the good thing about coalition was that it kept out (or at least at bay) the loonies of bothparties. He believed the coalition was a good thing but that the Tories he had spoken to (and urged us to believe that they are really not as bad as you think) were  NOT happy with the coalition and expected it to end. His analysis was that this was because Conservatives by their very nature do not believe in coalition. They just want to be in power. That is why they don’t like AV. Looking forward he said that the challenge for the Liberals was to ensure that liberalism was a guiding influence on government. He too called for liberals to keep their identity and push the things they believe in (eg localism) . He finished by saying that in order to reduce the deficit we need to REFORM the state not just trim it a bit and he preferred to have liberals involved in that process, rather than sitting on the sidelines.

As Lembit had yet to break through the ring of steel, the chairman (Mark Littlewood) asked Jeremy Browne (who was being so efficient he was quitting our session early to squeeze in another fringe event) whether it was possible for ministers in a coalition government to get out their own distinct liberal message?  Jeremy has obviously honed his interviewing technique across the summer and in true ministerial style chose to address another issue. He stated very boldly that forming a coalition with the Conservatives had been a fantastic achievement. He said he had grown very tired of sitting on the sidelines seeing the Lib Dems be proved right time and again to no avail. This was an opportunity to show that the Lib Dems should be in power – that Lib Dems CAN do government. He also pointed out that had we gone down the “minority Conservative government route” and Osborne had been voted down on his deficit-cutting package we would now be facing another general election. We would have demonstrated that we could not step up to the plate when needed and would have been punished at the next election with fewer MPs returned. What had we got out of this election? he asked….More than any other election in his lifetime. On that note he left to fulsome applause.

Lembit had by now battled his way through the security cordon and was (also to warm applause) invited to take Jeremy’s seat. How cool was this he said..a few weeks in coalition and he was being invited to take the seat of a minister… Turning to the topic in hand he kicked off by asking what on earthwas the point of being in the business of winning elections and then running away from power when it was offered? He reminded us all that he had in fact lost his seat to a Conservative and that people might assume that he was against a Lib/Con coalition (yep I assumed he was)..But no! he said that the ONLY numerical option was to go with the Tories. He believed that there was no alternative; that this was a test of courage – and had demonstrated that we do care more about the country that the selfish short term interests of the party. He finished by saying we should hold our nerve and be proud of the decision to take the brave and correct option.

Mark Littlewood (chair) then took a straw poll – “Were liberals right to join in coalition with the Conservatives?”. I was surprised to see that the overwhelming majority put their hands up (I was at the back of the room but estimate 95% put up their hands. Just a handful (and I mean a very small handful – one, maybe two?) raised their hands to the counter question of whether this was a bad thing.

Questions (and one or two rather long speeches) followed. I had writers cramp by then and gave up note-taking at that point – apologies.

The chairman did run a couple of other straw polls across the Q&A that I did note. “Who believes that MP’s were honest during the election about spending cuts?” (few hands)… “Who believed that there was obfuscation?” (vast majority raised their hands…no shit!). Hmm said Mr Littlewood this is a stored up problem for the coalition. You betcha. 

The final straw poll… “Will the coalition last a full five years?” Yes was the resounding majority reply.

And that was that. It was then off for food, wine and cigarettes (in varying proportions) and talking into the the wee small hours.

Our grateful thanks to our co-organisers IEA  (Insitute of Economic Affairs) and ASI (Adam Smith Institute), the chairman Mark Littlewood, our brilliant speakers, a truly marvelous organiser who got Lembit through the men in black, and of course the audience which participated so enthusiastically  (apologies not recording your comments/questions) and tolerated a superheated room without complaint.

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