It is time that Liberal Democrats ask what is the point in being in the coalition?
What have we achieved? What have we failed to achieve? Why did we join the coalition? And what would happen if we left it?
We can certainly take the credit for raising the starting point for income tax. 2 million people will no longer have to pay any income tax, and there have been tax cuts for low earners. There is no way that the Tories would have done that if they had been in power on their own.
We have introduced the triple lock to ensure pensioners get a fair deal.
We have introduced the pupil premium which has brought additional funding to schools with the most disadvantaged pupils.
We may have mitigated some of the worst excesses of Tory policy, but that is difficult to quantify, difficult to prove and difficult to explain to the voters.
And what else?
We have not achieved voting reform, but the Tories have got their boundary changes. That outcome was predictable from the moment we agreed to a single Bill that would introduce boundary changes, but only offer a referendum on electoral reform.
We have not introduced fixed term parliaments.
We have not achieved reform of the House of Lords. That may still happen, but I wouldn’t suggest that you hold your breath.
We have allowed the widespread move to Academies and so called ‘free schools’ of which most Liberal Democrats disapprove.
We have agreed to the break up of the NHS, allowing private providers to pick off the bits they want and introducing new powers for local commissioners to deny or ration care.
We have presided over savage cuts to benefits and services: the very services needed and used by the most needy members of society.
We have not stopped the widening gap between rich and poor.
We have not controlled the banks, or put a stop to the bonuses that so distort the priorities of senior employees in industry and banking.
We have not prevented the subsidisation of nuclear power.
We have not prevented the commissioning of a new generation of nuclear weapon carrying submarines.
We have not prevented the Tories giving tax breaks to the high paid.
We talked vaguely about a mansion tax, and a tycoon tax as a sop to Liberal Democrats, but have introduced neither.
Specifically when we conceded the reduction in higher rates of income tax in exchange for an end to unlimited tax breaks for wealthy donors, we stood by when George Osborne withdrew half the deal, thereby leaving both lots of tax break for the wealthy.
In short, we have been taken for a ride by the Tories who have out-manoeuvred and manipulated us very successfully.
When I campaigned for Parliament in 2010 I predicted that if we returned a Conservative government we risked a return to recession: the so-called ‘double dip’. We have done just that.
So, why did we go into the coalition, and why might now be the time to leave?
There are those who say that we should never have entered the coalition, that we should instead have agreed to support a minority Conservative government on a vote by vote basis. They forget two things.
First, if the Tories didn’t like running a minority government, they could have called another election in the autumn of 2010. They may well have won an outright majority and could then have carried on regardless.
And second, we need to remember the economic conditions of the time. The budget deficit and government debt were both greater than predicted, or admitted by Labour while in power. We were in turbulent times and at that time the only game in town was austerity. In reality, the coalitions cuts were not that much greater than those proposed by Labour, and though I believed, and still believe that we cut too much, too hard and in the wrong places, we must acknowledge the power of the markets to undermine countries and currencies. There was a perceived need for stability, and a firm hand on the nations finances. And in the real world, whether we like it or not, a perceived need may translate into a real need.
The world has changed. The turmoil has continued, arguably it has got worse, but the focus is off the UK. There is now widespread acknowledgment that cuts alone will not solve anything. National leaders and even the IMF are calling for growth. Liberal Democrats have always viewed appropriate investment in infrastructure projects as good for the economy, and now more and more people are saying the same.
The electoral position has changed. If we leave the coalition now and continue to support the government on those matters which we support, it is much less likely that David Cameron would rush to a general election. If he did, he would almost certainly lose.
If we have a general election now the Liberal Democrats would probably face wipe out. but on current evidence we face that anyway in 2015. Unless the Liberal Democrats can demonstrate to the electorate that there is a reason to vote for them the Party is facing a prolonged period in the wilderness. Individual Lib Dem MPs who are perceived by their constituents to have worked hard and done a good job will be returned. The seven MPs who supported the NHS will probably be returned, but the Lib Dem ticket as such has little meaning.
We seem to have no power in government and we can’t even oppose effectively. If Liberal Democrats have no point then as sure as night follows day they/we will disappear.
We need to show that we have different values from the Tories. We have worked with them for the good of the country, but we are not now achieving anything by trying to ride on their coat-tails. It is time for the Liberal Democrats to stand up and be counted.
(This article is written in a personal capacity and does not reflect the official view of any group or Party. C.W.)