One way to cure Lib Dem masochism – what I wrote for the Grauniad

by Stephen Tall on August 31, 2010

Over at The Guardian’s Comment is Free website I have an article proposing the Lib Dem leadership take a Coalition chill-pill, and start disagreeing more openly with our Conseravtive partners…

We’re masochists: it’s the only explanation that makes any sense. How else to explain the desire of Liberal Democrats to continue in a Coalition most of us seem to believe is destined to ruin the party?

According to a survey of some 600 paid-up party members for LibDemVoice.org, 84 per cent still support the coalition partnership between the Lib Dems and Conservatives – yet just 17 per cent of us believe it will be good for the party’s prospects at the next general election.

This is pretty illogical behaviour for a political party which, after all, is dependent on the votes of the public for its continuing existence. So masochism it must be.

Of course, there are other explanations. Tribal Labour-ites – whose sense of betrayed, apoplectic outrage against the Lib Dems for taking Jack Straw et al at their word is almost comedically unhinged – have yet to settle on an agreed attack line, instead flinging around a confusing paradox of accusations.

The Lib Dems, they say, were desperate for power (or we were just not serious about power). Or we were hoodwinked by the Tories (or we were Tories all along). Or we have sold out (because we should have sold out to Labour for a lower price).

Such taunts, as inaccurate as they are unfair, are doubtless good knockabout stuff for those who love the machismo of petty partisan politicking. But ultimately they are self-defeating. One day, maybe sooner than currently seems possible, Labour and the Lib Dems will work together in government. Better, therefore, not to spill too much bile: none of us would want to slip on it later.

Besides Labour’s slurs miss the point. Like most decisions in politics, the Lib Dems’ partnership agreement with the Conservatives is the usual admixture of pure idealism and sullied Realpolitik.

On the pure hand, Lib Dems are seeing – for the first time in post-war politics – liberal measures being implemented in government by the Lib Dems: cutting taxes for low-earners, the ‘pupil premium’ for kids from poorer backgrounds, a referendum on electoral reform, the abolition of ID cards, the creation of a green investment bank, an elected House of Lords, and the ending of child detention for immigration purposes. A majority of party members — 53 per cent, according to our survey — believe the Coalition is “implementing a significant part of the Lib Dem manifesto”; just 13 per cent disagree.

On the sullied hand, Lib Dem members are acutely aware that, by getting into bed with the Conservatives, we risk getting screwed. The comfort to which we clutch is this: that the Government would be behaving a whole lot worse if it weren’t for the Lib Dems dragging it to the centre. Instead of David Cameron being held to ransom by the right-wing Cornerstone head-bangers, he’s having to placate the Lib Dems’ fluffier, sandal-wearing tendencies, exemplified by Simon Hughes. That is the argument which has prevailed so far… but there are signs that patience is becoming strained.

When LibDemVoice.org asked party members to name the biggest danger likely to face the party in the next 12 months, fewer than half said that losing the referendum on the Alternative Vote was a hazard. Just 38% thought that divisions among our MPs – or even Labour-stirring gossip of a defection spoon-fed to a gullible news media – was a risk. Fewer still, just 30 per cent, were worried by the next Labour leader, whether their first name is Ed or their surname is Miliband.

But a whopping 82 per cent named as a danger the party failing to communicate how Lib Dem policies are making a big enough difference in government: this was, by some distance, the most clear and present danger felt by party members themselves.

In a sense, it’s an encouraging finding in that at least it’s a threat within the party’s control, and about which it can do something. So how can Clegg & Co. address the concern head on?

Well, they could try worrying less about the Coalition. Though the media is hyper-keen to forecast the demise of this marriage of convenience every time it spies a so-called ‘split’, it’s clear this Government is no one-year wonder. Indeed, 71 per cent of Lib Dem members now expect it to last the full five-year term.

It’s understandable in its first months why Coalition representatives have been so anxious to present a united front – but there is nothing stopping Lib Dem (or Conservative) ministers reminding voters that the two parties disagree on some significant issues, while working amicably together on those issues where agreement can be reached. It’s really not such a hard sell; the public understands already.

Fostering a Coalition which is relaxed with honest disagreement is important for the Lib Dems’ future good health. But it also is vital for the future of coalition partnerships.

If the public comes to regard the inevitable policy accommodation between two (or more) rival parties as an insipid muddle, weakly settling for the lowest common denominator simply to avoid conflict, then the hope of a more pluralist politics will be doomed almost before it has begun.

Yet if the Coalition is able to demonstrate that dynamic tension can work — that the clash of political ideas within government can leverage greater gains for society than single party minority rule — then there is still time to prove that a ‘new politics’ genuinely is possible.

At the very least it might cure the Lib Dems of our masochism.