In 2010, shortly after going into coalition, Lib Dem MPs and peers were addressed by various liberal politicians keen to share their experiences of being the smallest party in a coalition. It was a fascinating, if mildly depressing occasion, with the advice ranging from ‘it’s hell’ to ‘no really, it’s absolute hell.’
The most striking quote came from the Dutch politician Lousewies van der Laan who warned us not to act like ‘the mayor in wartime’: a reference to people who became mayors of towns occupied by the Nazis, and then justified the decision by admitting that things were horrific but would be mildly less dreadful due to their decision to take some power.
I was reminded of that quote by today’s story about the Liberal Democrats ‘axing’ the bedroom tax (or axing the spare room subsidy, if you prefer). The first thing to note is that, as George Eaton has pointed out this isn’t a scrapping of the policy but rather a reform designed to ensure the tax meets the objectives that were originally given as a rationale for creating the thing. The Lib Dem position is actually a good policy, so good in fact that the Lib Dems overwhelmingly backed it at their party conference last year. Party members will like the move, which is no small consideration, and it provides a good basis for the party’s stance in any future coalition negotiation. (As a sidenote, if the Tories say they were unaware of the party’s position on this they really should have learnt by now to pay some attention to the Lib Dem conference, the party’s most important decision-making body.)
There’s nothing wrong with politicians wanting to look again at policies that aren’t working as well as they would have hoped, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with parties in a coalition setting out where they differ. But good policies don’t always make for the best politics when the first thing voters hear about them is when they are slapped on the front page of national newspapers. Sometimes a bit more groundwork is needed.
It’s a good habit in politics always to think of the person standing in a voting booth and deciding where to put their vote. If they are someone who feels strongly about the bedroom tax are they now more likely to vote for the Lib Dems? Probably not – they’ll either vote for Labour, who want to abolish it entirely, or the Conservatives, who want to be tougher on benefit claimants. In fact the biggest reason they won’t vote for the Lib Dems is not about policies at all, it is about trust. Having the words’ U-turn’ on the front of the Daily Mirror doesn’t really help with that.
Another striking quote from that 2010 session was from a politician who warned us about being too open about the difficulties of coalition: ‘You will be tempted to show people your wounds’ he said, ‘but in politics if you show people your wounds you are just telling them where to throw the salt.’ Labour will now hold an Opposition Day vote on the bedroom tax. It will be worded in a way the Lib Dems can’t support, apart from a few rebels, and the party will have some more salt thrown on its wounds.
Sean Kemp is a former Downing Street advisor to Nick Clegg