David Hall-Matthews is the chair of the left-leaning grassroots grouping within the Liberal Democrats, the Social Liberal Forum. He explains his qualms about the way Nick Clegg is currently handling the coalition relationship to Coffee House readers, and calls on ministers to be bolder in calling for ‘adjustments’ to the government’s economic policy.
As the coalition agreement was hammered out between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in May 2010, the grassroots machinery in the party was swiftly cranking to life. Four leading members of the Social Liberal Forum, then just a small group within the party comprising over a hundred members, raced to London to discuss their strategy as their party joined forces with an old enemy. Now we’re over two years into that partnership, and the Lib Dems’ third conference in power is in full swing. The SLF now has over 1,500 members, and many of them are rather unhappy.
The chair of this group, which calls itself the ‘soul of the party’, David Hall-Matthews, isn’t entirely content with the way the partnership is working, either. When we meet just a couple of days before the conference begins, he is worried that this year’s conference in Brighton will be a ‘fork in the road’ for the party.
‘Simon Hughes said the other day that we’re in a much better mood,’ he says. ‘I think that’s half right, but until you get all the members in one place it’s quite difficult to be certain about whether this is a better mood amongst the parliamentarians who have got a better reason to be positive because they have got more opportunities, they’ve got used to it.’
One of the key changes he wants to see from Nick Clegg this year isn’t just the distinct Lib Dem vision that every activist is calling for, but a desire to articulate that vision at every opportunity, even when it makes the coalition travel over some bumpy terrain as a result. He says the failure of House of Lords reform will give the party ‘leeway’ to do this, and expects Clegg and colleagues to use the loss of the legislation as a justification for opposing more than just the boundary changes.
‘Politically Clegg has got to get smarter at making compromises behind closed doors where necessary, but not giving away political capital to the Conservatives and working harder at a Liberal Democrat position, not for its own sake but what our positions are.
‘I would say he hasn’t articulated sufficiently clearly and sufficiently often Lib Dem positions on the economy, on welfare, and on health and education. He has succeeded and articulated Lib Dem positions on constitutional affairs, on which it should be emphasised he was right, but he would acknowledge that these are not key vote issues.’
The problem, Hall-Matthews argues, is Clegg’s understanding of how a coalition must function. He says the Deputy Prime Minister is ‘supporting their agenda when he should be articulating his agenda’, pointing to Vince Cable as an example of a Lib Dem in cabinet who gets the balance right. He says Cable has a different approach to how to negotiate the relationship.
‘Vince Cable is doing a better job: he’s the only member of the cabinet, the only Liberal Democrat member of the current cabinet because I think Chris Huhne is the other one who made a point of sometimes, when it was on his brief, of saying what he thought.’
The real task for Clegg and his ministerial colleagues going forward is to make the case for ‘adjustments’ to the government’s economic policy, he says. The SLF’s members are very nervous about further cuts to the welfare budget, and will expect ministers to start pressuring their Conservative counterparts accordingly.
‘There is more wiggle room for senior Lib Dems to ask for adjustments on the economy. I don’t expect any senior Lib Dem to say Plan A isn’t working, or we’re going for an economic U-turn. That doesn’t really help anybody… it’s a political disaster as well. ‘
Hall-Matthews describes a more ‘honest’ coalition, where the partners have the ‘courage’ to state openly their positions on each issue, even if they are then publicly disappointed when the other party wins.
The Social Liberal Forum itself is no stranger to making a fuss: it was the group’s members, particularly former MP Evan Harris, who managed to temporarily disrupt the government’s health reforms last year by leading a concerted campaign against the Health and Social Care Bill. Clegg was sufficiently concerned about ensuring the support of the soul of his party that he spoke at its conference this summer.
This is an impressive level of influence when you consider that the SLF only formed in 2008. In some ways, it does still appear a young organisation: when I first met Hall-Matthews at last year’s Lib Dem autumn conference, he was surprised to find that any journalist had been sitting in on the SLF’s fringe event on welfare. Similar groups within other parties would expect media attendance at their talking shops: SLF members still seem mildly flattered. But though more and more Liberal Democrat members have flocked to join this group since their party entered government, Hall-Matthews is the only one of those four who met to discuss their party’s future in May 2010 who remains a Liberal Democrat.
He has stood for Parliament himself three times, twice as a paper candidate. Although he has no plans to stand in 2015 currently, he is still interested in one day making the journey to the House of Commons. But there are some party members who found coalition a shock because they never expected or really wanted to be in government, he says:
‘There were some Lib Dems who were like, I didn’t join the Lib Dems to have any influence on government: I wanted to be in a third party!’
Unlike some Lib Dems in Parliament, Hall-Matthews does not spit poison about Clegg. His overall demeanour is very polite, anyhow, but he does say Lord Oakeshott’s call for Nick Clegg to consider stepping down before the next election was ‘spectacularly badly-timed’, given Clegg had just days before announced his support for a wealth tax which Oakeshott has been calling for. But he adds:
‘Clegg’s personal ratings are poor: if you get to a position with a year or so to go to the election and Clegg’s poll ratings are much worse than the party’s or there is specific polling which shows that the party would do better without Clegg, he has to consider that. I don’t see any advantage in thinking about that now, though.’
But it is David Cameron, not Clegg, who has the real fight on his hands this conference season, he says. He argues that Lords reform ‘represents Cameron’s failure to get his party to do what he asked them’ because he ‘failed to control some pretty nutty backbenchers in large numbers’.
For now, the Lib Dems are relatively united by contrast. But there’s a sense that if members don’t see Clegg taking this advice to become ‘smarter’ at coalition, he may find his party increasingly difficult to control, too.