Matt Cole: History lesson for Lib Dems on political deals

NICK Clegg’s Liberal Democrats face a dilemma. As they assess the damage they sustained at the local elections and the referendum over electoral reform, they must decide how to strengthen their role in the coalition government.

But Liberals have always co-operated with other parties, and their experience, especially in Yorkshire, offers valuable advice for the future.

Liberal Democrats lost a third of the seats they defended.

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No consolation came from the referendum on AV, at which two-thirds of voters rejected the Lib Dems’ proposed electoral reform. Only 10 districts out of 440 in the whole country voted “yes”, and none of these was in Yorkshire.

Liberal Democrat leaders, resentful of personal attacks on Clegg made by their coalition partners in the “No2AV” campaign, now find themselves under fire from their own local government troops.

To distance themselves from last year’s image of Clegg and Cameron in the rose garden at 10 Downing Street, they have stressed the possibilities of working with Labour in the future, their disappointment at what Vince Cable calls the “ruthless, calculating and very tribal” Tories, and the need for new concessions from the Conservatives on health policy and reform of the House of Lords.

But they have promised to govern for five years to solve Britain’s economic problems, and the last outcome they need is an early General Election.

If they cannot bring home trophies to their supporters, do they simply take punishment as the Conservatives’ political shield? Or do they walk off into the battlefield of a possible new General Election?

Liberals have been here before. A century ago, they were in an alliance with the infant Labour Party forged by the Liberal MP for Leeds, Herbert Gladstone, which brought the Liberal victory of 1906 and made possible old-age pensions, unemployment insurance and reform of the Lords – but also nurtured Labour as the party which was to replace the Liberals.

In the 1920s, the Liberals supported minority Labour governments, and, in the ’30s, they joined the Tories in coalition. Spen Valley’s Liberal MP, Sir John Simon, was a keen supporter of the National Government, serving as Foreign Secretary and Chancellor.

Both arrangements split the Liberals, and by the 1945 General Election, the party’s multiple divisions were such that the contest in Huddersfield saw a “National Liberal” MP challenged by a Liberal candidate while Labour nominated a man whose brother and father had both been West Yorkshire Liberal MPs.

In 1950, Huddersfield Liberals and Conservatives gave each other a free run in the two constituencies of the town and Donald Wade served as the Liberal MP for Huddersfield West until 1964.

The next year, at Colne Valley, Asquith’s daughter, Violet Bonham Carter, stood as Liberal candidate for Colne Valley with no Conservative opponent. Churchill even came to speak in her support, and he offered the Liberals a Cabinet post when he won the General Election.

Making coalitions is not dangerous, but their continuation under the wrong conditions can be, and that is the issue which Liberal Democrats now have to consider.

In the 1960s, the Liberal Party revived, and in Yorkshire broke off, their deals with the Tories. Richard Wainwright won Colne Valley for the Liberals by building a coalition of voters for the Liberal Party rather than with other parties.

It started with core Liberal support which had always existed in Yorkshire, adding disillusioned supporters of other parties and those impressed with local activism.

Wainwright wrote: “The Yorkshire method is to test a case by reference to some detail on which the enquirer is expert. If Liberals make good councillors, and the parliamentary candidate masters some local issue, the inference is drawn that the rest of Liberal policy is likely to be sound.”

This approach had won Ryedale and Leeds North-West for the Liberals by the time Wainwright retired in 1987.

The Liberals continued to co-operate with other parties: Wainwright took part in the Lib-Lab Pact in the 1970s and the Alliance with the SDP in the ’80s. The pact cost the Liberals three-quarters of the council seats they defended in 1977, but they recovered. Wainwright was among the first to see when these arrangements were obsolete, but it took him time to persuade colleagues.

A Leeds accountant, he was a consummate judge of when the political costs to party, community and country outweighed the benefits. That discussion is going on among Liberal Democrats now. The debate is sharper than is seen in public, and more unpredictable than constitutional principles suggest.

Liberal Democrats have worked at national level with other parties in the past, and in councils across Yorkshire over recent years, without losing their existence on the ground or their ability to bounce back. In determining how soonest and best to preserve those, good Yorkshire business sense will be at a premium.

Matt Cole is a Visiting Fellow of the Hansard Society and the author of Richard Wainwright, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats: Unfinished Business (Manchester University Press)