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.