Labour activists photobomb the Liberal Democrat's poster unveiling. Photo: Getty
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How a Liberal Democrat might talk about the coalition without winding up Labour?

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been at odds - but what if things were different? A Labourite explains how the Liberals should talk about the past five years in order to build friendships with Labour.

It was clear from the results of the 2010 election that the British people wanted a change of government. The parliamentary arithmetic for keeping Labour in office was unworkable. The economic situation was becoming ever more worrying, with the risk that the European banking crisis was turning into a sovereign debt crisis. Britain needed a stable government that would see out a full term of office, and the only way it was going to get one was if we made some painful compromises and came to an agreement with the Conservatives. The choice at that point was not between the Conservatives' economic strategy and our own, or Labour's - the choice was between the Conservatives' strategy and no strategy at all. We make no apology for putting the national interest first. Even in such difficult times, we insisted on doing some important groundwork for a fairer and more sustainable society, such as the upil Premium, railway investment and planting forests rather than selling them off.

New Labour had been able to fund improving public services by taxing a lightly regulated financial sector, but the crash of 2008 revealed how flawed this strategy was in the long term. Immediately after the crash it was necessary to stop recession becoming a Great Depression by boosting spending and running a deficit but everyone in the real world, including Alistair Darling, knew that some difficult choices were going to be needed to cope with the permanent fall in tax revenues. This government has delivered what Alistair Darling set out to do before the election - halved the deficit. Labour's choices would have been different - and indeed if the Liberal Democrats had won the election ours would have been different. But the fact remains that the economy is in a better state than it was in 2010 and we stand by the broad choices we made. We did not get everything right – no government ever does – and we have learned a lot from our experience of government.

The key question is what to do next.

We welcome what Ed Balls has said about Labour's commitment to sound finance. If the electorate give us a position of responsibility in the next parliament we will make sure that Labour sticks to that commitment and do not shirk the tough decisions that will come.  We also want to keep the pressure on Labour to deliver a really fair society and not pursue headline-chasing policies that would be counter-productive for equality of opportunity. To Labour we say: opposition is easy. Governing in tough times, as we have learned the hard way, is the test of your mettle.

We are very worried about what the Conservatives are proposing. There is nothing economically prudent about promising unfunded tax cuts and ring-fencing areas of spending at the drop of a hat while proposing drastic cuts to many of the public services that give people the platform to bring up their families and get on in life. In the next parliament, we will ensure that the next government does not hack away at the public services that are the foundation of a strong economy that delivers a better life for everyone. To the Conservatives we say: we can agree on reducing the deficit, but we will not join an ideological crusade.

We do not regard Labour as the infallible authority on how to create a fairer society, and we certainly do not trust the Conservatives to sustain a stronger economy during the next parliament. We talk about a stronger economy and a fairer society not as a piece of positioning between two other parties, but because these are our fundamental values.

The choice is up to the British people. In 2010 they chose the Conservatives, but wisely did not trust them with an overall majority. It fell to us Liberal Democrats to provide stability rather than years of crisis. We achieved many things that we wanted, but we also had to respect the majority party's view in important areas - that is simply how coalition works. Politicians and the media should know better than to whip up scares about the SNP holding the whip hand – a hung parliament obviously did not produce chaos or the dictatorship of the smaller coalition partner in 2010! We believe in being mature when it is necessary to work with people we don't always agree with.

This article is one of a two-part series. Its counterpart can be read here.

Lewis Baston is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit, and former director of research at the Electoral Reform Society.

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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.