I’m not going to lie, when we went into coalition with the Tories, I did not feel comfortable with it. Working with the party who had destroyed the country I grew up during the 80s in was never going to be easy. It’s not about comfort or ease, though. It’s about doing good and enacting liberal values. We’ve made mistakes – howlers, even. Who hasn’t? Can you say that you’ve got through the last five years error free? We have much to show for it. For every child who hasn’t had to spend months in Yarl’s Wood, for every disadvantaged child who has new opportunities at school, for those who benefit from reforms to mental health, for those who have workplace pensions, for pensioners benefitting from the triple lock, for those people across the world who benefit from our aid. for those who are now free to marry the people they love, it’s been worth it. Despite all the constraints on us having only 8% of the MPs and a fifth of the government, we have made a very strong, liberal mark.
Despite everything, this coalition has been the best UK government of my lifetime. That’s quite a long time, however much I like to pretend that I’m a young person. Certainly the likes of Blair, Thatcher and Callaghan didn’t set the bar very high, but we’ve achieved a lot. It’s been a roller coaster and I’m far from satisfied with everything it’s done, but I am incredibly proud of Lib Dem ministers, among them:
- Lynne Featherstone and Lindsay Northover on violence against women and girls;
- Jo Swinson on shared parental leave, tackling payday lenders and getting on her feminist high horse;
- Mike Moore and Alistair Carmichael for ensuring a fair referendum and delivering more powers for Scotland;
- Norman Lamb for transforming mental health services in England;
- Chris Huhne and Ed Davey for global action on climate change and unprecedented investment in renewables;
- Vince Cable for help for business, creating millions of new apprenticeships and opportunities for young people and stopping the Tories firing people at will;
- Steve Webb for making the pensions system fairer.
It’s a pretty darned impressive list of achievements already and I’ve barely started.
When we joined the government, the country had a couple of coins, a piece of string and some polo mints with fluff all over them in its coat pocket. We go into the election with an economy that’s getting there, with record levels of employment and more opportunities for young people.
We know what happened the last time the Tories were left in charge during a recession in the 80s. Liberal Democrat influence has made the process of recovery fairer.
Nick Clegg personally has done pretty well. He’s stopped really draconian Tory curbs on civil liberties, he has led the drive to improve mental health and he’s improved the life chances of disadvantaged kids by giving them extra money in school. That is already improving attainment levels.
There are things I regret, but on balance I am really glad we got stuck in there she the country needed us to step up. In Scotland we’ve had a reminder of how majority governments operate to compare with the coalition at Westminster. The last thing we need is to have either the Tories or Labour with a majority. That wouldn’t be good for Scotland or the UK.
Had the Tories been governing alone, and I am in no doubt that if we hadn’t gone into government, they would have won a second election within 6 months, they would have cut much more, they would have slashed benefits for young people – imagine the disaster of nobody under 25 getting any help with housing costs, capped child benefit – all those awful things that are in their manifesto would be on the statute book. One thing that would no longer be on the statute book would be the Human Rights Act, which would be a disaster not just for individuals that wouldn’t have its protection but for our standing in the world and the example we should be setting. I mean, who wants to take civilising rights away from their citizens?
For 13 of the last 15 years, Liberal Democrats have been in government somewhere in the UK. In Scotland, in coalition with Labour in much more tranquil and benign economic circumstances, we were able to deliver significant reforms from free personal care to a fair voting system for local government. Our ministers have shown competence, imagination and an ability to listen to people. They have been accessible, sensible and fair. We need these people back in office.
One of the most crucial things we’ve done is to show that coalition can work at UK level. Bear in mind that it’s so much more difficult to do it at Westminster. At Holyrood, Scots pretty much get the Parliament they ask for. That’s not the case at UK level. We’d have had 140 MPs if the people had got the Parliament they asked for. How much more we could have done with that level of strength.
Nobody thought the coalition would see out more than a couple of fractious years, yet it’s been more functional and less riven with toxic factionalism than the Thatcher, Major or Blair governments.
People need to be very aware that we have not had a Tory government these last few years. The horror that would unfold if they were allowed to govern on their own doesn’t bear thinking about. It would certainly show the difference the Liberal Democrats made, but of all the possible outcomes of this election, it’s the very last one I want to see. Too many vulnerable people would suffer. All those Tories who voted against equal marriage, who want to ban the burka, who think the immigration and benefits systems are too soft would be effectively running the country. It would not be a pretty sight.
Liberal Democrats have put scarce resources into helping break down barriers for people, for those with mental ill health and disadvantaged kids, for kids in the immigration system. We’ve mostly strengthened people’s rights and done the really liberal thing of giving families a real choice about who takes the parental leave. We’ve given loads of help with childcare and want to go further.
We have made sure that Theresa May hasn’t got very far down her terrorism to-do list and we have ensured that by abolishing control orders and the ID database and blocking the snoopers’ charter that civil liberties are in a better state than we inherited.
Nick Clegg has had to take some abuse. He hasn’t got everything right – but then, we’ve had this conversation already, neither have you or I over the last five years. It pains me to see the vitriol directed at someone who is actually one of the most consistent, straightforward, decent people I’ve met in politics. When I met him in that dingy room in Leicester all those years ago, having read his CV which was the most boring thing I’ve ever read that wasn’t a phone book, I wasn’t expecting much. He blew us away. And what was he talking about? Helping disadvantaged kids and breaking down barriers for people.
I’m so proud of the whole party, from ministers, to those grassroots activists who have had severe reservations about the coalition but who have got their heads down and worked their backsides off anyway. Now is the time to stand together and make sure we have as many MPs as possible come May 8th.