Simon Hughes: The Liberal Democrat party is stronger than ever

Our legislature must change from an ornate shed, hosting combat between two unrepresentative tribes, to a political forum reflecting the diversity of modern Britain
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The Independent Online

I have been involved in British general elections since 1964, and Election 2010 has been the most exciting I have ever experienced. After 39 years as a Liberal and Liberal Democrat party member, and 27 years as an opposition MP fighting the cause of liberal democracy, to see Liberal Democrats in government in coalition with the Conservatives was not an outcome I had ever considered. But although the colour and shape of our new government may have come as a surprise, equally unexpectedly it is not an unwelcome surprise.

This is the best available outcome for liberalism and for the country given last week's result. By entering into this coalition Liberal Democrats will be able to deliver on all of the four major policy priorities that we campaigned for at this election – fair taxes, a fair start for children, investment in a new, green economic future and complete overhaul of our failed political system.

Many times since last Friday, I have repeated that Liberal Democrats, like the Liberal Party before us, are a radical party of the centre left. But as talks proceeded over recent days, it became clear that the Labour party – a party with equally radical, progressive traditions – was unwilling and unable to reach any sort of meaningful arrangement. After the final results last Friday, when the British public decided no party could form a majority government, my party honoured our earlier commitment to talk first to the party with the largest electoral support. At the behest of our parliamentary party on Monday our negotiators also started formal talks with Labour. To the disappointment and surprise of our negotiating team, and from the beginning, many of their Labour opposite numbers showed themselves uncommitted and unenthusiastic about achieving a Labour-Liberal Democrat deal.

It was not clear that Labour could or would even deliver their own people for a referendum on the alternative vote electoral system. By contrast, the Conservative team changed their position in our direction on each of the four major policy areas of our election campaign and are now willing to guarantee a referendum on the alternative vote.

Our negotiators reported that Tory negotiators displayed a "can-do" and "will-do" attitude in contrast to Labour's "can't". This week showed that Labour progressives had clearly not won the day, leaving two options. The untainted alternative was to allow the Conservatives to form a minority administration, giving us easier campaigning, unsullied by government, and continuing opportunities for oppositional politics. With the occasional exception, at most a few times a year, we would be handing to the Conservative Party the ability to run Britain more or less as they alone wished – with the further democratic weakness that the Prime Minister would be able, after only a few months, to force another general election. And all this power – augmented by uncertainty – would be given to a party which had won the support of only a third of those who had voted and under a quarter of the electorate as a whole.

A core political objective I have held all my adult life is a British legislature changed from an ornate shed, hosting combats between two unrepresentative tribes, to a political forum for our country much more accurately reflecting the views as well as the gender, ethnicity, belief and background of all the peoples in the UK. In opposition we can win the odd glorious campaign, such as rights for Gurkhas. In government, with all its complications, challenges and responsibilities, every day is an opportunity actually to change your country.

But government even with British Conservatives? As my colleagues and I decided very early on yesterday morning whether to agree to enter government, we made a decision that was much more of the head than of the heart. Suddenly the second option presented itself, we had on offer a coalition agreement which included our four major policy commitments and many, many more. And there was a much bigger prize too. Liberal Democrats as a party, strong, proud successors in the long Liberal tradition and to the social democratic movement, have the opportunity to lead the radical agenda from government and not from opposition.

It can be Liberal Democrats who drive the change to a modern constitution and a modern political system. It can be Liberal Democrats who reverse the growing inequalities of the last 30 years and deliver a fairer and thus more successful Britain. It can be Liberal Democrats who ensure the first ever government committed to green, sustainable economics, energy and politics. It can be Liberal Democrats who lead the reduction in the powers of the state and the enhancement of the freedoms of the individual. It can be Liberal Democrats who change the old nationalisms into a new internationalism of conflict prevention, climate security and reduced inequality around the world.

I test all our policies and all the decisions made by Liberal Democrats at local, national and international levels by the preamble to our party's constitution – where we encapsulate our core values and core beliefs. We exist as a party to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

Whatever the difficulties of leading Britain out of the recession, reducing the deficit, growing our economy and reversing our headstrong irresponsibility as stewards of our planet, our philosophy, traditions, principles and values remain rock solid. Political parties do not exist to debate or advise; they exist to implement, to deliver and to change. Thirteen years of Labour and 65 years of red/blue politics has left Britain with too few liberties, reduced equality and frustrated opportunity. Our ambition is nothing less than a more equal and free society, where the poor are protected and supported and the better off much more generously shoulder our responsibilities.

The days ahead may well have times of trial. As a proud, confident liberal, ambitious for my community, my country and my world, I am more confident than ever that liberal democracy in Britain will not be found wanting.

Simon Hughes is Lib Dem MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey