The Liberal Democrats are carrying out a mid term review of the coalition. Here's my version. The first thing is that when caught up in the moment – particularly this moment with bruising encounters going on around the NHS, welfare cuts and particularly brutal treatment of disabled people by Iain Duncan Smith and his department - we don't always remember why we are here.
So first of all a reminder – we got here because in May 2010 the UK economy was in desperate need of stable government and the Conservatives had won the most votes and the most seats. So we negotiated seriously with them. There were two alternatives – let the Conservatives govern alone, or join a rainbow coalition with Labour. Labour were in a mess, and, whatever they're saying now they were not capable of negotiating seriously. The Parliamentary maths did not add up. And the prospect of shoring up Labour with the megalomaniac Brown in charge and their plans for the database state would have given us as many ideological and political problems as the Tories have done. You have to deal with the world as it is, and not the world as you want it to be, and although many of us, myself included, would instinctively choose Labour over the Tories, that would not have been a sensible choice in 2010.
The economy remains our main concern, despite it not being top of the agenda at the moment. (It may well return there if the Euro crisis breaks out in spots again.) So the rationale for the coalition remains as it was in 2010, and is likely to remain so right up to 2015. And then, to lengthen our perspective the other way, towards what may happen in 2015, as usual voters are most likely to vote on the state of the economy, together with the perceived competence of the incumbents.
A lot has happened in these nearly two years that I like, and a lot has happened that I dislike. My greatest regret about the first part of the coalition is that we let the poisonous Iain Duncan Smith anywhere near welfare. But, on the whole, my feeling is that we have done good things – we have demonstrated, and will continue to demonstrate that coalitions can work. We have done very well on taxes for poor people, and with a variety of other issues – pupil premiums, affordable housing, apprenticeships, the green investment bank. MarkPack's infographic explains it all very well
Given that we have approximately 1/6 the number of seats the Tories have (despite having two thirds of their vote, but that's not a popular topic at the moment), that's a pretty good result. Maybe we could have done better at reining in some Tory excesses, but on the whole we have done well at a time when a lot of unpopular decisions were necessary. The noise coming from our Parliamentary party is that getting in to government and finding out how it all worked was a steep learning curve, not least in learning how to keep an eye on absolutely everything going on in each department. We have more experience now and more staff which means we're better prepared for the second half of this government than we were for the first. The second half promises to be very different – I'll come on to that in a minute.
We have had to compromise on a lot of things, and we have learned that compromise can be a minor and polite disappointment, but it can also be downright painful. As I haven't been in government myself (and, no, I couldn't do a better job, thank you), I've had the luxury of being semi detached. I like what we've done on pupil premiums, I dissociate myself from the cesspool Lansley is creating for the NHS; I like what we've done with personal tax allowances, I can say the filth and lies Iain Duncan Smith's DWP is peddling about disabled people is nothing to do with me. But if I'm to be honest, I can't do that. I have to accept that my party is part of government and has been party, willingly or not, to decisions I abhor and despise. Welcome to government. People can point the accusation of inconsistency at us (as if they haven't been doing that all along – say one thing in one place and another along the road, all things to all people etc etc, yawn). Labour are pointing the finger often. I wonder how many Labour supporters feel completely comfortable about the Labour government's decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq – no, didn't think that many. This government, to my shame, is causing deaths*, but not on the scale Tony Blair did.
I think it is possible that we are changing the temper of politics, which can only be to the country's good. We have been working openly and productively with people we dislike as well as people we like. Vince Cable is now famous for saying we have discovered the Tories are calculating, ruthless and tribal – but that doesn't mean we can't work with them. . This week at PMQs (7th March) Labour tried to score a point by asking Cameron what he thought of Vince Cable's leaked letter on industrial policy. What Cameron said and also how he said it were both revealing and to my mind potentially very hopeful. He neutralised the question completely by saying straightforwardly that he disagreed – he gave a number of reasons why. But he did it in measured and polite tones. It is unheard of for a Prime Minister to disagree so publicly and on such a stage with a Cabinet colleague. But he did, and he did it in straightforward, polite and measured tones. For once we had people at PMQs – some of them anyway - acting like adults. One of the worst kept secrets of contemporary politics is the fact that people disagree. In the febrile and juvenile atmosphere of PMQs any slip, any suggestion of anything other than complete marital harmony draws horrified gasps and journalistic metaphors of slit jugulars and mortal wounds. But here was Cameron saying he disagreed with a colleague, and doing so in such ordinary tones that it was not possible for any journalist observing to do their usual impression of a ferret on crack rushing round screaming “Disagreement, government in chaos, it's all falling apart. Leave the country NOWWWWWW!!”
It is just possible that this is one of a few signs of grown up politics, and that will be a very good thing both for the Liberal Democrats and for the country. If we can demonstrate not just that coalitions work but that they work very well, then, whatever happens after the next election we will have done the country a power of good. When people are actually allowed to disagree and debate, you get better decision making. And we LibDems will probably do ourselves good too, because people will see that we have contributed to that measured tone. We are, after all, quite good at it. We are famous for the way we “argue” with each other. Only, what other people call “argue” we call “debate”; and the policies that emerge from that cauldron of debate are the better and the stronger for it. We have seen several internal groupings emerge recently, to the usual chorus from some that we are suffering splits that will lead to our inevitable decline (again). But to me they are just signs that we are organising even more and better debating platforms than we have had in the past, and we will formulate good resonant policy out of them.
We're being told that the main legislative programme for the coalition is going to be complete well before the end of the Parliament. There may be nothing else that we want to do. Even if we do, there may be nothing that we can agree with the Tories. It would be wrong to go looking for things to legislate about. As all the best doctors often do, leave the patient alone. If you've got nothing to change, then govern.
In the absence of any really contentious legislation (politicians being politicians, any legislation will be contentious, especially if there's nothing more important to fight about), then I think there are two things for the LibDems to do. The first is to work for fairness in the application of the laws we have. Mostly that means finding ways of reversing some of the nastiness that has come from the Conservative end of government, particularly the vicious treatment of claimants, and especially disabled people, emanating from Iain Duncan Smith and the other Tory ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions. I fear that there are scandals to come, with continuing exposes of A4E's ways of working, which may enable the DWP to deflect attention. I also hear suggestions that A4E may not be the only offenders. (What do you expect? If you give people an unsupervised money making machine, they will take advantage.) But that will not detract from the fact that a lot of good can be done by purposefully using the machinery of government – influencing the way regulations are laid, how policy is enacted, and the ways in which select committees and other inquisitors can hold the government to account. That is a full time job for the next three years.
While doing that we should be extending the conversation. We should be going out to the country (all the different parts of it, but if you care about the union, do pay particular attention to Scotland). Using our eyes and ears as much as our mouth. Debating with people what a fair society is and what they want to see in order to achieve that will serve three purposes. It will show people that fairness really is at the heart of what we try to achieve; it will give us a clearer sense of what will work in terms of making Britain a fairer place; and that it turn will give us a very clear idea of what we can offer that will resonate with the country for 2015 – 2020.