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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue