My column for ConHome: The Lib Dems are lucky, very lucky, to be in coalition with the Conservatives

by Stephen Tall on October 23, 2013

con home cartoonMy ninth column for ConservativeHome — The Other Side — ran yesterday. You can read it here, as well as the always interesting comments below-the-line. Over a hundred yesterday and the subject wasn’t even Europe. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke … constructively, I hope.

Some people are lucky in their enemies. Some people are lucky in their allies. So the Lib Dems have been doubly lucky that the Conservatives have been both our enemies and our allies in this first post-war Coalition Government.

ConservativeHome readers may well take for granted the notion that the Lib Dems have been lucky, reckoning David Cameron should never have teamed up with the Yellow Peril in the first place and has conceded far too much to us already. Many of my fellow Lib Dems, however, will doubt my sanity: “Lucky?! Have you seen what’s happened to our ratings since we went into Coalition with them? How every week we have to fight a rearguard battle to stop those right-wingers wanting to do [insert pet hate of choice]? And you say we’re lucky to be in government with them? You’re mad, Tall!”

Yet we are lucky and here’s why: we disagree with the Conservatives enough to protect our own identity within Coalition. The politicos call it differentiation. Most people would recognise it as ‘good cop, bad cop’ politics. And it suits us Lib Dems down to the ground. It means that on many of the issues that matter most to the voters – especially tax-cuts for the low-paid and safeguarding the NHS, according to this YouGov finding – the Lib Dems are considered to have been a civilising influence on the Conservatives.

Tim Montgomerie highlighted this in his ConHome column here (and in The Times) last week: “Mr Clegg has increasing reason to believe that he will be able to campaign at the next election with the plausible message that if it hadn’t been for his influence the Tories would be governing as the same ol’ nasty party.”

I agree with Tim. He is, however, quite wrong to think that this is all the fault of those pesky Lib Dems saying nasty things about the Tories – “this Clegg-led recontamination of the Tory brand,” as Tim rather flatteringly puts it. If only we enjoyed such powers of persuasion! No, Radiohead put it more accurately in their song, Just: “You do it to yourself, you do, and that’s what really hurts”. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that David Cameron himself was complaining of the Lib Dems’ restraining influence on his True Blue wishes.

The paradox for the Conservatives is that on a range of key issues – benefits cuts, immigration crackdowns, ECHR withdrawal – the party’s policies are individually popular, appeal to a wide spectrum of voters; yet, taken together, these relentlessly hardline stances give off a whiff of uncaring harshness.

Since the last election, there have only been two significant movements in the polls: 2010 Lib Dem voters deserting us for Labour; and 2010 Conservative voters leaving the party for Ukip. There’s been scarcely any movement from Labour to Conservative (or vice versa).

As a result, Cameron and Osborne have focused on winning back their 2010 voters, pursuing their own 35% strategy. Which is understandable, but flawed: after all, if 38% wasn’t enough last time, it’s hard to see how doing not quite as well as last time will be enough in 2015. Of course, a 35% strategy is fine for Ed Miliband: under the current constituency boundaries, it potentially delivers him a coalition-free majority. But for the Conservatives to win outright the party needs to win over Labour and Lib Dem voters. With just 18 months until the next election, it shows few signs of being at all interested in doing so.

The Lib Dems, however, have a clear strategy. It’s defensive, unambitious, unloved by activists – but it’s the only option available to us: to fight as the party of moderate, centrist, pragmatic, small-l liberalism. The party will be the voters’ aspirin in the event of another hung parliament headache, promising to take the edge off the pain you’d suffer if either Labour or the Tories governed alone.

Politicians sometimes say they won’t settle for any half-measures: yet that’s exactly what the Lib Dems will settle for next time. The party has a fairly solid base of 10% of the electorate. A further 15% would consider voting for us, pretty evenly split between those who are currently Conservative or Labour voters, or who are undecided. If we can persuade half of those considerers to vote Lib Dem in 2015, the party will likely hold the balance of power once again. Call it our 17.5% strategy, if you like (the optimistic end of the party’s share-of-the-vote forecast for 2015).

You won’t find many of those 15% of considerers here on ConservativeHome (though there are probably a fair few lurkers). But you will find them in the Lib Dem-Conservative battleground seats. And it is they who Nick Clegg is speaking to when he sticks up for the European Union, as I highlighted in my last column. It is also they who he is speaking to when he expresses concern about free schools being able to hire unqualified teachers. Those of us who take a more liberal line and want to see schools free to innovate (yes, I did say ‘us’: this is an issue on which I don’t agree with Nick) should recognise the popular appeal of promising that ‘every child should be taught by a qualified teacher’.

I said at the start, the Lib Dems have been lucky twice-over in partnering with the Conservatives. You have allowed us to frame ourselves as the defenders of fairness in government. You have allowed yourselves to become defined as the ‘bad cops’ in the opinion of most voters.

We wouldn’t be that lucky with Labour, though: they would do their utmost to ensure it was the reds who got the bragging rights for defending the downtrodden and the dispossessed, the yellows who were seen as heartless scourges of the poor. However much we raised the fairness stakes, you can bet Labour would out-bid us. Though perhaps they’d make some concessions on civil liberties to ensure they can blame us for any terrorist outrages.

According to our LibDemVoice surveys of card-carrying members, my party would much rather do a deal with Labour next time around. I understand why and we should, of course, keep our options open: what smart negotiator doesn’t? Especially as it’s the voters who’ll decide what’s possible and what’s not. But we should be very careful what we wish for, otherwise it will be the Lib Dems that end up branded as the nasty party in any future Lib-Lab coalition. We can’t always rely on being so lucky as we have been with the Conservatives.