“A stoical and resilient lot” – Andrew Rawnsley’s verdict on the Lib Dems. Here’s what I think…

by Stephen Tall on May 6, 2012

The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley has a well-balanced and judicious write-up of last Thursday’s local elections for all three main parties — noting that ‘two out of three of the main parties have responded in a rational fashion. The exception is the Conservatives.’

Here’s what he has to say about the Lib Dems:

Catastrophic is not too strong a word to describe what has just happened to them. They went into these elections thinking that at least they could not possibly suffer as badly as they did last year when fury with Lib Dem “betrayals” was at its most intense. In the 12 months since, Nick Clegg has pursued a strategy of more aggressive differentiation from the Tories in the belief that this would claw back some credit and respect. What has that achieved? If these elections are any guide, the effect of Mr Clegg’s switch of strategy has been precisely zero. His party took another severe beating. Over two years, they have lost more than 1,000 councillors, leaving them with fewer local representatives than at any time since the party was created. The one impressive thing about the Lib Dems is how they have responded to their punishment. Whatever profound despair they may be feeling in private, they have largely managed to stay composed in public. Their ejected councillors have displayed grace in defeat. Mr Clegg’s parliamentary party, in contrast to Mr Cameron’s crew, have not done an impersonation of headless chickens. The one advantage of all those decades that the Lib Dems spent in opposition is that it made them a stoical and resilient lot.

To that I’d add three other points:

1) The party signed-up to the Coalition — we are living with its consequences.
Lib Dem members agreed almost unanimously to the Coalition Agreement at the party’s special conference in Birmingham. The Coalition Government is now unpopular, and we are getting kicked as the party of government in those areas where it’s a Labour-Lib Dem contest — whereas in areas where it’s a Tory-Lib Dem contest, we more than held our own. There was no worse time to pilot post-war Britain’s first ever attempt at Coalition. The fact remains that (for the reasons I set out two years ago) Coalition with the Tories was and remains the Lib Dems’ only viable option.

2) There is no easy ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ solution.
There are only three options open to the party. Stick with the Coalition; end the Coalition on some pretext; get rid of Nick Clegg as leader (which would most probably end the Coalition as well anyway). No-one has yet put forward a remotely plausible explanation how either of the two latter options will persuade former Lib Dem voters to come back to the party. It’s more likely that pursuing either course would alienate the 16% of the public who just voted Lib Dem, while confirming in the minds of the rest of the voters that the party is too soft-headed — and remains far too in love with the idea of being liked by everyone — ever to be fit to govern again.

3) The party can emerge stronger and wiser.
Stronger and wiser — yes — though not necessarily as popular: in my view, that’s not a contradiction. This is the Lib Dems’ first experience in government, and there’s no doubting we have made mistakes, though (like the tuition fees pledge) some of these took place in opposition and have simply been exposed by having to take some responsibility for our actions. I suspect there are more than a few Lib Dems looking forward to returning to the peace and safe obscurity of opposition, to licking our wounds, and being able to put forward well-intentioned policies which will be imbued with as much purity as the dust that gathers on them. That’s fine for those (ex-)members who prefer to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But we have three more years in government, so whatever energy we have should be dedicated to making the most of that time, not in wallowing in self-pity that our 23% of the vote at the general election has not somehow given us the right to implement only the policies we Lib Dems want. Coalition ain’t easy, ain’t comfortable — but it’s what pluralism is about, and I’m genuinely proud my party is trying to live out its own philosophy.