Thursday, 20 May 2010


It was a relief to find that the ‘new coalition’ was eventually supplanted by other stories at the top of news bulletins. I wish it hadn’t been the violence in Thailand, as that’s a truly awful situation which is tearing apart a wonderful country, but that then made way for Lord Triesman’s demise at the Football Association.

Some people laugh at the Triesman fiasco, but I don’t, and it has nothing to do with football. In fact it has a lot to do with the coalition.

There was a lot of talk at the election (much of it from me!) about the need for a new politics. And I find it great that we have a form of government that no-one had thought would come about. But for it to work, you need some valves in the system that release the pressure, as well as space to think creatively.

Much releasing of pent-up tension and resentment, and much creative thinking, come in quiet discussions where you can think the unthinkable and speak the unspeakable. Some know it as brainstorming, but the name isn’t important. What’s important is that you can say what you want, so that what you eventually say in public is measured and reasonable.

We’ve all done it. We’ve let off steam privately about a boss or colleague, even a member of our family with whom we have to get on but who privately drives us up the wall, only to moderate our stance in public. Or we’ve said to a friend or relation ‘This is probably a mad idea, but …’ And it often is a mad idea, but occasionally it proves to be inspired.

All this is fine and dandy as long as these conversations remain private. But what happens when they become public? There are two ways to go – either you clam up and say nothing to anyone, or you get the world to recognise that the conversation was private and don’t give the person who has made it public the satisfaction of having embarrassed you.

This is why I’m worried that David Triesman had to resign after being betrayed (there really is no other word for it) by his dinner companion. I have never met the man and have no idea whether he holds some weird views or has alienated people in his entourage, so I don’t know about any underlying motives.

But what I do know is that his conversation with Melissa Jacobs was private and should have remained so. As head of the FA’s bid to bring the 2018 world cup to England, Triesman had to think around all elements of the bid, including elements he would never have dreamed of expressing publicly. If he hadn’t wondered about vote trading or even influencing referees, he wouldn’t have been the right man for the job.

That’s why the Mail on Sunday should never have published the story. Once it had, the FA was in an awful position – it should really have stood by its man, but it knew that would have virtually killed off England’s bid.

You can be sure that there are conversations going on now in Lib Dem and Tory circles which involve a lot of letting-off of steam and thinking the unthinkable. These conversations really are vital, and if we make them impossible to have because of the fear that they will get out, then we really will make this country ungovernable.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010


It became clear on Saturday that the result of Thursday’s general election had changed the nature of the Liberal Democrats for good.

For years we have struggled to gain a degree of influence, developing policies that we felt were right for Britain – in the sense of being socially just and environmentally geared to the future. And we knew that when we got a hung parliament, that would be our chance.

To build up to that, we developed a broad voter base, effectively made up of three groups of people: pure Lib Dems who support us for what we stand for, Tory sympathisers who will vote Lib Dem but never Labour, and Labour supporters who will vote Lib Dem but never Conservative.

From the moment we got into the situation where we had to choose between a deal with the Conservatives, a deal with Labour, or remaining in opposition – a situation we had longed for – one of those three groups was going to be seriously cheesed off.

Over the weekend I got lots of emails from Labour supporters saying ‘Don’t do it’. On Monday night when we heard the Lib Dems were talking to Labour, I got some from Conservative supporters saying ‘Don’t do it’. And yes, I got one from a lifelong Liberal saying we should remain in opposition – I guess that confirms the view of some historians that liberalism is a movement rooted in opposition that finds government difficult.

I don’t subscribe to that view. I believe we are in this game to improve people’s lives, and this was our chance. Nick Clegg and the rest of us campaigned for a package of policies, highlighted by four headline aims (fairer taxes, ‘green’ jobs, more money for education, and cleaner politics), and was unremitting in his insistence that people should vote for what we stood for, not who our possible partners in government might be.

The Con-Lib deal that has been agreed as the basis for the new coalition has concessions on all four fronts. The biggest is a Conservative commitment to raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, albeit phased over the next few years. That is a genuinely Lib Dem initiative that would never have happened with a majority Tory government – nor even with a majority Labour government, despite it being something I believe Labour should have been advocating.

Other concessions include the ‘pupil premium’ we’ve been pushing for, and an environmental boost to the economy – for those of us dubious about David Cameron’s ‘green’ credentials and worried he might abandon the environment once in power, our presence could well mean something. And there will be political reform, even if it may not go as far as some of us in the Lib Dems want.

So am I happy with this deal? – not totally. Am I happy to accept it? – yes. Is that a contradiction? – I don’t think so.

As a child getting the hang of politics, I knew I was not a Conservative before I knew whether I was pro-Labour or pro-Liberal. I still feel that way, to the point where I am uncomfortable doing a deal with the Conservatives. I suspect Cameron is a moderately decent guy, but George Osborne leaves me cold, as do plenty of others in the Tory ranks, from grandees to young Turks. To that extent I fully understand the feelings of those who oscillate between Labour and Lib Dem who feel let down by this deal (even if I wish some of those who had written to me to express their views had been a little less abusive).

But what was the alternative? The parliamentary arithmetic meant a Lab-Lib deal could only happen as part of a ‘rainbow alliance’ that would have been messy and could have faltered the moment an MP or two fell ill. And would we have gained by staying in opposition under a minority government or a grand coalition? – people would have said we just couldn’t decide, and would have wondered what the point of the Lib Dems was.

There are those who have accused Nick Clegg of being duplicitous over the negotiations, most notably Malcolm Rifkind, who said Nick’s negotiating has been straight out of the Robert Mugabe school of government. I met Rifkind when he was transport secretary and found him a gentle and level-headed man, but he’s gone off the deep end here.

His remarks are grossly unfair. Nick always said the party with the biggest mandate had to have first go at forming a government, but once it became clear negotiations with us had got bogged down, he had to talk to Labour. Failure to do so would have led to a longer period of post-election instability that would have led to uncertainty on the currency and stock markets.

More importantly, the fact that the Lib Dems talked to Labour and found a deal couldn’t be done should make the coalition we’ve got more palatable for everyone. Of course some Labour spin doctors will try to say we’ve abandoned socially progressive politics, but that is just a self-serving way of trying to swell Labour ranks with disaffected Lib Dem supporters.

I don’t know how it’s going to end, and yes, I am apprehensive about it. But I entered politics in the hope of improving not just the society that has served me personally so well, but also the mechanisms by which we do business. That inevitably means cooperation, a word I used a lot in my election campaigning, and the Con-Lib deal is the first exercise in that cooperation.

No-one would bat an eyelid if we had a war on and formed a coalition. Because the threat is economic and environmental rather than military, the need for a coalition seems less clear-cut. But it’s a massive threat and, following Thursday’s vote, this seems the best and most optimistic way of proceeding.

All I would ask is that people who have been well-disposed towards the Lib Dems give it a chance before rushing to judgement.

Monday, 10 May 2010


First up, a massive caveat: I know no more than anyone else about what’s going on in the Conservative/Lib Dem negotiations. I may be a candidate – or ex-candidate – but I have no more information than the 50 million other people who are following developments through the media.

What I can say is that I’ve had a number of comments from people who voted for me who are very angry about the possibility that the Lib Dems will do a deal with the Conservatives. As I have an email address for the specific purpose of passing on comments to the party’s high command, I have been able to report the broad sentiments, and I can say the Lib Dem negotiating team is well aware of the strength of feeling among party members and Lib Dem voters.

But like most things of political importance, it isn’t quite as simple as it may seem. And there are two things that are central to this.

Firstly, I hope people can now see why Nick Clegg and all of us who stood for the Lib Dems were so reluctant to answer the question “Which party will you side with in the event of a hung Parliament?”

The answer we gave constantly was “Please vote for our policies, not for a possible coalition.” I dressed this up differently. On several occasions I told people “It’s like meeting a new person and instead of saying ‘Who are you? – tell me something about yourself’ you say ‘Tell me who your friends are, or might be?’”

We stood on our four main platforms – fair taxes, a better deal for education, a boost to the economy through creating ‘green jobs’, and cleaning up politics – on the basis that, if there was a hung Parliament, we would use those four issues as our bargaining counters so Lib Dem votes turn into real action. That is what is happening in the current negotiations, and if people want politicians to do what they say they’d do, no-one can hold the current negotiations against us.

Of course the big question is: what can we reasonably get from the Conservatives? To me, and to many other Lib Dem voters, a fundamental issue is meaningful electoral reform, but can the Conservatives deliver it? I suspect David Cameron would be willing, as I sense he sees it as part of bringing his party into the 21st century. But could he take his party with him? Probably not.

Which could then throw us into discussions with Labour, and also the Scottish, Welsh and Ulster parties, given that ‘Lab + Lib Dem = minority’. After all, Gordon Brown is promising an immediate referendum on electoral reform, albeit with the discredited Alternative Vote system.

But – and this is my second central issue – could Labour deliver meaningful electoral reform? There are plenty of Labour MPs who are no keener on ditching the first-past-the-post voting system than the dinosaurs we know inhabit the Tory ranks. Given that a Lab/Lib/nationalists alliance would only just have a majority, it would only take a handful of rebel Labour MPs to kill off proportional representation.

I am desperate to see PR happen. I remember the discussions in the 1970s about it, and want Nick Clegg to use all his current power to get PR. But some of the media commentators are assuming his power is greater than it might be.

That’s why the best thing everyone – Lib Dem voters, sympathisers, and party members – can do is to be patient and trust the negotiating process. It’s not a nice feeling, but it’s the best and most respectful thing we can do in the circumstances.

[Written at 10.30am, Monday 10 May 2010]