My Total Politics column: Be careful what you wish for. Lib Dems weren’t in 2010. Will we be in 2015?

by Stephen Tall on November 11, 2013

Be careful what you wish for. That’s what commentators warned the Lib Dems every time the polls teased us that a hung parliament might come to pass, that we could end up holding the balance of power. It’s not the most helpful advice, to be honest. After all, what was our choice in 2010? Turn down a once-in-a-century opportunity to give government a go and confirm the verdict of the sceptics that we are indeed a wasted vote? No chance. No choice. We had to do it. “The British people are the king-makers,” acknowledged Nick Clegg. “The bastards,” he didn’t add but could have.

The Coalition has not been kind to the Lib Dems. Our leader is pilloried and our poll ratings have halved. One-third of the party membership has gone Missing In Action. We have fewer councillors than at any time since 1984 (and at least then numbers were on the up).

In the circumstances, we might be forgiven for turning round to the voters and saying: “You know what, guys, next time you can’t make up your minds don’t look to us to break the deadlock. You can just enjoy Conservative/Labour minority rule instead. That’s right. See how you like the government being constantly held to ransom by Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries or by Len McClusky’s hand-picked squad of Unite-sponsored MPs. We tried this ‘compromising for the sake of the national interest’ thing and all it brought us was a load of grief. So we’re going to wash our hands of it.”

Yet that isn’t the mood of Lib Dems. At all. Three things strike me as pretty remarkable features of the Lib Dems in Coalition.

First, the unity of our MPs. Not that they’re united in supporting the Coalition’s policies. Far from it. In fact, there isn’t a single Lib Dem MP who has been on the backbenches throughout this parliament who hasn’t rebelled at least once. But – and it’s a big BUT – there has been no whisper of a revolt against Nick Clegg’s leadership. Nor has there been a defection to Labour (remember the silly season media chatter in 2010 that Charles Kennedy was about to switch sides?), even among those Lib Dem MPs most likely to lose their seats to them. When Sarah Teather declared herself “desolate” at Lib Dem complicity in the Coalition’s immigration and welfare policies she didn’t make her point by jumping ship but by walking the plank, saying she’d stand down as an MP in 2015. Indeed, her most damning line was that “my own party [is] just as afraid of public opinion as the Labour party”.

The second remarkable thing is this: that those 42,000 Lib Dem members who remain have stood firm behind remaining within the Coalition and trying to make it work. Close to 80% continue to support it, according to our latest LibDemVoice survey. Even the Social Liberal Forum – an influential activist group set up to challenge what they regard as the leadership’s economically liberal ‘Orange Book’ agenda, and which views the Coalition with deep suspicion – has stopped short of calling for the party to withdraw from it.

Here’s the third remarkable thing – in spite of everything the party has endured within the Coalition, three-quarters of party members want the party to continue playing an active part in government after 2015. You might expect MPs still to be enamoured by the novelty of ministerial office (either its continuing reality or future prospect). But that the poor, bloodied infantry is still prepared to go over-the-top in the hope of advancing the liberal frontier a few more yards is pretty admirable/foolhardy* (*delete according to taste).

There is a paradox, though. By a 2:1 majority, more Lib Dem members would prefer Labour as our partners to the Conservatives next time. Yet among the party’s 57 held seats, the Conservatives are in second place in 38. This means the post-2015 Lib Dem parliamentary party is likely to be dominated by MPs in Tory-facing seats (usually with Labour in a distant third). True, any deal with Labour might allow us to squeeze their vote further in those areas. But the bigger risk will be Tory-turned-Lib Dem voters returning to the fold to get rid of Labour. So if, as expected, we lose a chunk of our current seats to Labour in 2015 as a result of the Coalition with the Conservatives it’s at least as plausible that we’ll then lose a chunk of those seats that remain to the Tories in 2020 if we go into coalition with Labour. Talk about a double whammy.

The party that’s become famous for the success of its ‘squeeze message’ – “Only the Lib Dems can beat the Conservatives/Labour* here!” (* delete according to seat) – could well become the victim of the biggest squeeze since the party was all-but eliminated in the 1950s. You know what? We’d better be careful what we wish for.