It’s not just this Government that’s unpopular: it’s the idea of Coalition. Here’s what Lib Dems need to do about that.

by Stephen Tall on December 7, 2012

There are many arguments the Lib Dems are winning in government. But there is one very big debate we’re currently on the losing side of with the public: that coalition government is capable of working. And it’s not surprising that voters are unpersuaded given we Lib Dems look a whole lot less than convinced by the experience.

The known knowns of Coalition

Let’s get two pieces of mitigation out of the way:
1) Coalition government is always tougher on the junior party: we lack the democratic mandate and therefore the strength in numbers in ministerial posts to have the impact we’d like.
2) Lib Dems got into government for the first time in our modern history at the worst time possible: in the midst of the worst global economic crisis in memory.
This much we know.

We know too that a significant number of members and 2010 Lib Dem voters simply couldn’t stomach the idea of the party forming a coalition with the Tories, regarding it as betrayal even though it was an option Nick Clegg explicitly ruled-in well before the election. This was the group which saw pluralism as nothing other than a synonym for a Lib/Lab pact.

Another tranche of members and voters deserted the party over the leadership’s U-turn on tuition fees or the messy NHS Reform Bill. These were the ‘red-liners’, the this-far-but-no-further group who are only ever one disappointment away from tearing up their membership cards. And then there’s the ‘general lapsed’, those folk who signed-up to support the Lib Dems in a moment of ‘yes, we can do this together!’ headiness, and who have come to realise what a despondent grind party politics can be. Again, this much we know.

The 3 Lib Dem coalition camps

Which leaves those of us who are, well, left. We fall into three broad camps, I think, some probably shape-shifting between each of them depending on what day it is, which I’m going to caricature as follows:

  • There’s the minority (say 15-20%) who are Coalition enthusiasts, believers both in the principle and reality of what the Lib Dems are getting out of government and reckon liberalism is a net winner. (Though hopefully none use the dread Twitter hash-tag, #Coalicious).
  • Then there’s a second minority (say 25-30%) who simply cannot wait for “this bloody farce of a forced marriage” to be over and done with so that the party can either get back to principled impotence opposition, or try and cut a more comfortable deal with Labour.
  • And then there’s the bare majority (50-60%), the grudging realists, who believe the party had little choice in May 2010, who accept there’s a few good things we’ve got out of Coalition but think we’re too often outmanoeuvred by those sharp Tories along the way, and who are sceptically open to a further post-2015 agreement (finger crossed, next time with Labour to even things up a bit).

You can argue with my caricatures, argue with my guesstimate proportions of how many members fall into which camp. I think most would accept, though, that open and active support for the Coalition is a minority pursuit within the Lib Dems.

What the public makes of the idea of coalition

I realise, of course, there’s a difference between supporting the actions of “this Coalition” and supporting the idea of “a coalition”. But I’m not sure the public has bought into that distinction. A Populus poll in the summer showed that 65% agreed with the statement: ‘Britain being run by a coalition between parties rather than by a single party with an overall majority has made government in this country weaker’. Just 23% disagreed.

For Lib Dem pluralists who believe strong, effective government springs from cross-party working, starting from where we agree rather than where we disagree, this is a depressingly overwhelming margin against that very concept. For Tory and Labour strategists, that poll shows exactly what they want to see: a public rejection of coalition politics, a return to the simplicity of strong, single-party rule. I don’t want us to play into their hands.

Reclaiming Coalition’s virtues

There are two imperatives facing Lib Dems: both the leadership and the membership. First, we have to demonstrate clearly what it is the Lib Dems stand for, repair the attrition which a couple of years’ compromises have wrought and which a further two years’ compromise will bring. As I’ve argued before, these should be based on cleaning up the economy and cleaning up our politics.

But then, secondly — and just as importantly in the long-term — we need to make strongly the case for coalition, not just as a one-off experiment which we cannot wait to be terminated, but as a better way of governing for the long-term. This requires the leadership to continue staking out Lib Dem distinctiveness within the Coalition, as, for example, we saw again in this week’s autumn statement, when Nick Clegg openly dissented from George Osborne’s dismissal of a mansion tax. As John Kampfner has described this differentiation strategy: ‘What has been found to work is when, publicly but politely, one leader says: “We advocated A, they advocated B, but we agreed to settle on C.”‘

Yet we also need to recognise that such a ‘splitting the difference’ approach to Coalition is not the way we will persuade the British public that coalition is itself a better, stronger, more effective way of governing this country. I don’t think that’s as hard as it may seem (notwithstanding the inevitable hostility of the British news media).

The last (only) two Prime Ministers to win outright Commons majorities in the last 20 years — John Major and Tony Blair — successfully persuaded the British people that they could combine economic competence with social justice. I cannot see either David Cameron or Ed Miliband successfully making that pitch in May 2015: the Tories are seen to be hard-hearted, Labour to be mushy-brained. There’s only one viable way the next government has a chance of getting the balance right — and that’s if the Lib Dems remain right at its heart.