My ConHome column: Lib Dems have ticked Coalition off the bucket list. Do we really want to do it again?

by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2015

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. 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.

“I’m afraid to say, I think this is about as good as it gets.” That was the fatalistic verdict of one long-standing Lib Dem friend on whether he thought the Coalition had been worth it in the end.

I knew what he meant. I guess even the more realistic of us had hoped our first taste of government would turn out better, easier. We’d get some of our policies agreed (check), we’d stop some of their policies with which we disagreed (check), and we’d make coalition government work (check). Simple! Then all we had to do was reform the voting system and await our reward from a grateful electorate. After all, hadn’t the voters always said they liked the idea of parties working together in the national interest, compromising where necessary? There’s a harsh lesson learned: never trust the public. They’re deeply unreliable.

It all sounds pretty naïve now. Which, of course, was my fatalistic friend’s point… The junior partner in a two-party electoral system is almost certain to be screwed over. In the circs, then, we’ve not done such a bad job with the cards we were dealt in May 2010; but it was never a winning hand. Yet there are those in my party — perhaps the majority — who dismiss this line of argument as too deterministic, who say that it absolves the party leadership of blame for the mistakes (tuition fees, NHS reforms, bedroom tax) undoubtedly made.

Working our way backwards through the grief cycle

I’m told there are usually five stages in grief. I think  Lib Dems have been working our way backwards through them. We began, in May 2010, with acceptance: the pain that ‘Cleggmania’ had won us more votes yet lost us seats was eased by the enjoyable novelty of being in government for the first time in living memory. Then came depression, brought on by that U-turn and the AV referendum defeat and the continuing recession and the hemorrhaging of membership and the rejection of Lords reform. We tried to regain control as we moved into bargaining: we vetoed the re-drawing of constituency boundaries and began stridently differentiating ourselves from our coalition partners. When still the polls didn’t improve, and we saw yet more councillors scythed down and 90% of our MEPs vanquished, anger asserted itself: briefly, last summer, it seemed Nick Clegg might be forced out. But that moment passed.

What does that leave us with? Oh yes, the first stage of grief: denial. Maybe you think I mean denial of the result that awaits us? Actually, no. I think most Lib Dems are straightforwardly stoic, expecting us to make heavy losses. My own guesstimate that we will win 32 seats is roughly mid-way between the pessimists (c.20) and the optimists (c.40). No, the denial I’m talking about is the notion, popular on both the left-leaning Social Liberal and right-leaning Orange Book wings of the party, that we should shun the liberal centre in favour of a radical agenda which will, they are convinced, win back the voters who have deserted us.

They’re each honourable positions. The problem with both of them, though, is that they rely on the Lib Dems being able to defy electoral gravity, leaping in one bound into a government in which we set the agenda. But that just ain’t going to happen. The Lib Dems’ only route into government for the forseeable future is in coalition with either of the two main parties. That necessarily means compromise, pegging the Lib Dems as the party of moderate, fair-minded pragmatism. Clegg’s embrace of the ‘liberal centre’ isn’t even a choice: it’s an inevitability which the party has either to follow willingly or unwillingly.

There is, of course, an alternative (pace Mrs T, there always is and, realist that she was, she often pursued it). To serve in government only on our own terms; almost certainly, this means no formal coalition, though it probably leaves space for more ad hoc arrangements which keep the government going while keeping it in check.

Power at any price? No, thanks

I was struck — gob-smacked would be nearer the mark — by a tweet from the Financial Times’s Janan Ganesh last week: ‘Even if Lib Dems fall to 1% in the polls, it was worth it. The point of politics is power. The alternative was cruising at 25% to no end.’ I’ll put temporarily to one side my objection to the idea that power is an end in itself, when it is, or should be, solely a means; though I found his remark unintentionally revealing of a certain type of entitled conservative mindset.

But Ganesh’s view is even more revealing of a Westminster-centric view of politics which needs challenging. Prior to May 2010, the Lib Dems had helped run national governments in Scotland and Wales — that future prospect now seems remote and distant; we had almost 4,000 pavement-pounding councillors slogging their guts out for their local communities — their number has been almost halved; and we had 11 MEPs fighting the British liberal corner in the European parliament — today we have just one lone representative. Much of the Lib Dem power-base built up while ‘cruising at 25%’ has been lost since the Coalition was formed.

To be clear, I’m not arguing my party made the wrong choice when, five years’ ago, we decided to throw our lot in with your lot: we had to give coalition a go, suck it and see. We can now say we’ve ticked it off our bucket list. But if, as my fatalistic friend says (and I think he’s right) this really is “about as good as it gets”, is a ‘Liberal-Conservative Coalition 2.0’ worth the repeat fees?

Until recently, I would probably have said yes on the utilitarian grounds that (here my defeated councillor friends should avert their eyes) a miserly sliver of national power is better than a generous slice of local power. What’s changing my mind is the increasing sense I have that Conservative MPs are getting pretty comfortable with the idea of extending the contract. Why? Because they realise things have mostly (though by no means wholly) gone their way so far; and they reason that, as the Lib Dems will be in a weaker position after May, things will be even more likely to go further the Conservative way in the next five years. Just as that logic reassures them, it worries me. I don’t believe in power at any price.

Do I want a Coalition Second Coming?

So what would I like to see happen if the Conservatives are in a position to form another coalition with my party? Well, we should certainly sit down and talk. To be a liberal is to be a pluralist, to recognise that two heads are usually better than one — so long as you don’t lose your own in the process.

Conservatives might think the EU in/out referendum will be a show-stopper. It won’t. The main reason the Lib Dems aren’t already offering it in this May’s manifesto is to retain it as a bargaining chip for future negotiations (to be honest, it’s hard for the party with Democrat in its name to be against giving the voters a say).

Harder to resolve will be two fundamental issues on which the parties now have starkly divergent attitudes. First, the economy: Lib Dems are fully signed-up to bringing the deficit down while borrowing to invest in infrastructure; the Conservatives to generating an absolute budget surplus. And, secondly, welfare: the Conservatives will need to cut this budget harder and faster (except for pensioners, obvs) if they’re to have a hope of funding their promised higher-rate tax-cuts. Perhaps there’s a way of squaring this circle. There always is with enough political will.

Ironically, a deal would be likelier if Tim Farron were leading the party than with Nick Clegg at its head. Farron, the social liberal leader-in-waiting who’s spent four years touring the country cheering up the troops, has much more political capital to spend. Clegg, by contrast, will have a tough, tough job selling to party members a deal many will believe involves selling their souls.

How would I vote if a Coalition proposal were on the table? It would, of course, depend on what it says (will it create “a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life” blah blah). Over and above that, I would want to know the answer to one question. I’m not a deeply tribal person, but this would be key: How would the Coalition’s Second Coming re-build the Liberal Democrats’ strength across the country? Because we cannot grow liberalism by retreating to three dozen fortresses. And if that’s as good as it gets, then I’m afraid that’s not good enough for me.

PS: I ran out of space to ask the question, ‘For Nick Clegg to stay, the Lib Dems need to “confound expectations” – what does that mean?’. So I wrote about it here.

PPS: Over at LibDemVoice, James King has written a good, pithy case against Coalition 2.0 here.

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