Are Lib Dems missing the moral high ground?

by Stephen Tall on October 11, 2012

The New Statesman’s fair-minded political editor Rafael Behr has written a post-conference post mortem for each of the three parties here. Noting how Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s outburst against police ‘plebs’ hijacked the news agenda, reviving the ‘nasty party’ jibes (“Many Lib Dems didn’t seem to mind their demotion down the news agenda and revelled in the Tories’ discomfort”) here’s what he has to say of the Lib Dem outlook from the vantage of Brighton:

Lib Dems miss the moral high ground

Nick Clegg’s strategists talk about “resilience” as the quality that voters will come to admire in the party. They are banking on the emergence of “grudging respect” for a leader who has endured multiple humiliations but not wavered in his determination to govern. Opinion polls don’t show much sign of that happening.

The party is “battle-weary”, in the words of one senior adviser. “[Lib Dems] long to feel good about themselves again.” The leadership thinks that self-respect can be acquired through dogged determination to carry on governing. The absence of any rebellion against Clegg suggests that the party is willing to give it a go for a while longer. Still, Lib Dem delight in watching Tories squirm suggests the lure of righteous opposition anger is getting stronger.

I don’t think this assessment is unfair. But I don’t think it’s the whole story either. What surprised (impressed) me about the Lib Dem conference was how the party remains hungry for power. I had wondered how far the first two-and-a-half years of Coalition — the U-turns, disappointments, mistakes — would sap the will of the party to want to be in government.

My overriding sense was: not much.

That isn’t, of course, the same thing as suggesting party members are happy with all that the Lib Dems are doing in government. What came across much more was the wish to make this current government better, more liberal — and to be in with a good shout of doing the same after 2015. My take is backed up by two of our recent members’ survey findings:

  • In June we found 63% of members favoured opening coalition negotiations with whichever party has the strongest mandate if a stable Commons majority will result;
  • And in August we found 67% of members prepared to express a preference for working actively with either Labour or Conservatives depending on the post-2015 election results.
  • None of which suggests to me a party longing for “the lure of righteous opposition anger”.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.