Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Jam tomorrow?

The key challenge facing the Liberal Democrats this week in Liverpool was how to define their place in British politics following the creation of the coalition government. Five days later and little clarity has emerged.

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Are the Lib Dems merely providing convenient cover for an ideologically-driven Tory government or is there distinctive Liberal tinge to coalition policies?

One of the key ways in which the Liberal Democrats will be judged on is in their relationship with trade unions and with working people. Beyond the explicit relationship with Labour currently adopted by 15 trade unions, the majority of unions are not linked nor affiliated to any political party and are open to working with any government or political party of such co-operation is in the interest of their members.

In addition, unions of all persuasions have shown a willingness and ability to work with all of the main political parties in a constructive and progressive manner. The most obvious examples of this can be found in local government. Hundred of local authorities in Britain are run by Lib Dems and by Conservatives. In many of these town halls, up and down the country, models can be found of positive relationships with trade unions which deliver clear benefits for councils and for the communities they serve.

Now, as coalition partners to a political party often regarded as hostile to unions at a national level, the Liberal Democrats will have to decide whether they wish to develop a positive working relationship with the trade union movement. The first step along this road will be to recognise trade unions as part of the solution and not part of the problem.

While a number Lib Dem members of the government continue to use negative language when referring to trade unions, this often seemed at odds with the sentiment of many Liberal activists attending their conference who frequently expressed their support for many of the campaigns being led by the trade union movement.

Opposition to academies and free schools, concern over the speed and depth of proposed government spending cuts, alarm at the lack of consultation carried out by the government and worries about the direction of travel on welfare reform…. the list goes on. The defence most commonly offered by delegates was that the coalition would also in the future deliver on key Lib Dem manifesto promises. The main defence of Nick Clegg was that the coalition should be judged only in five years time – when the economic situation may have improved.

Such optimism is admirable but brings to mind Lewis Carroll’s Alice, told by the Queen of Hearts that ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.’

Liberal Democrat MPs, councillors and members will now need to decide how many of their principles they are willing to sacrifice to maintain their place in this coalition government.

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Chris Weavers

is principal official (parliamentary and trade union liaison) at NASUWT

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