The Economist’s political commentator ‘Bagehot’ this week surveys the attitudes of Lib Dems towards the Coalition at the mid-term point — I particularly like its opening:
THE Somerset village of Chew Magna, with its sleepy pub and Georgian houses, seems an odd setting for prognostications about Britain’s political future. But prognosticate the local Liberal Democrats do. “In 40 years’ time, people will look back and ask: what was all the fuss about being in coalition?” says Dine Romero, a councillor. Her colleagues nod. Multi-party government, they agree, is here to stay. “I like coalition—on principle”, asserts a sprightly 91-year-old.
We all know the reality, of course — Lib Dem involvement in the Coalition has seen the party take a pasting in the polls and at local elections. And yet:
Liberal Democrat members nationwide seem strikingly grown-up about the concessions their party must make in coalition government. Surveys by the Lib Dem Voice website show that support for the coalition has fallen just seven percentage points, from 84% to 77%, since it was formed in 2010. Only 9% want the marriage dissolved this year. … A comparison of recent polls by Conservative Home, a website for Tory fans, and Lib Dem Voice suggests that roughly twice as many Liberal Democrats as Tories want the coalition to survive until the election.
The article briskly cuts to the heart of the Coalition dilemma… pluralist Lib Dems believe in the virtues of Coalition; purist Tories long for the simplicity of single-party rule:
“Pluralism does not take us forward,” argues Barry Macrae, a Conservative on the Bath and North East Somerset council. “It’s a compromise on what time of day it is.” One Tory councillor in London groans at the mention of the deal. “It’s a bloody nightmare,” she opines conspiratorially. “The Lib Dems are complete wusses.” … Lib Dems claim that their passion for coalition is philosophical in nature, but it also has pragmatic roots. The party has long relied on a power base in local government, where coalitions are common. And national coalition government is their only chance of remaining in power after 2015. Their dismal polling numbers suggest that storming out and triggering an election before then would be suicidal.
It concludes with a warning to Tories counting on a post-2015 majority:
Egged on by uncompromising party members in the constituencies, ministers are delaying awkward decisions on airport capacity, the EU and energy until then, apparently convinced that coalition is a blip. They may well be wrong. If so, it is in their interests to come to terms with compromise. As one Liberal Democrat in Chew Magna sagely remarks: in this age of coalition, “you can be purist in opposition, but not in government.”
* 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.