‘PROOF THAT THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS ARE A PARTY OF NINNIES’ bellows the headline of a recent Spectator article by Alex Massie. Not an auspicious beginning, but I couldn’t resist the clickbaity title and so went on to read why exactly we are all ‘foolish or stupid’, to quote Mirriam-Webster’s definition. The answer: only 70% of Lib Dem voters, when polled, said that they wanted the party to be in power at the next General Election, with 17% hoping for a Labour majority government and 6% wanting David Cameron to govern alone. Massie then goes on to attack the Lib Dems as ‘a party that preens and congratulates itself for being ‘above’ mere grubby politics but that actually is really just about a polite form of copping-out and quitting the game’ – a rather odd conclusion given the last four years, but I suppose old stereotypes die hard.
It is, however, fair to ask why a party might not want to be in government. One answer is that the Lib Dems rely more heavily than other parties on tactical votes from people who are actually Labour or Tory supporters. But, Ashcroft polling aside, there are probably a fair few ardent supporters of the party who quietly pray for a Tory or Labour majority next time. I can think of at least three good reasons for taking this attitude:
1) We won’t get a good offer from either of the two other parties.
If there’s a hung parliament next time, I doubt that the offer from either side will be particularly generous. Cameron is constrained by his own backbenchers and the party’s right, who will be far better organised in putting forward their demands and blocking any unacceptable deal. The result will probably be a large chunk of Tory policies on the economy, public services and Europe with some of the more palatable Lib Dem demands (e.g raising tax thresholds) sprinkled on top. Labour would be more subtle – I imagine a proposition along the lines of ‘we are really very similar in a lot of areas, which is why we should just implement the Labour manifesto’.
There is also the added problem that we will probably lose maybe half of our vote and probably return between 30 and 40 MPs. Not only will the loss weaken our legitimacy in any negotiations, it would mean that we’d probably have only two or three Cabinet ministers and a large number of departments without any Lib Dem representation at all. The result would be that our influence in day-to-day governance would be weaker than it is now.
Of course, we will probably be able to implement some Lib Dem policies in these hypothetical governments. But we’d also implement a lot of illiberal policies as well which take us further away from a freer, fairer and more open society. It would therefore be perfectly sensible to reject these offers.
2) Westminster isn’t everything.
This is a trap which the leadership falls into with alarming frequency, pretending that we never ran anything more serious than a car boot sale before May 2010, whereas in fact we’ve run big cities and delivered public services in County and District Councils for years. There’s also the small matter of us running Scotland for eight years. My point is that the Westminster bubble doesn’t realise the importance of elections to anything other than Westminster in implementing Lib Dem policy. For a pro-European party, we underestimate the importance of what our MEPs did on the environment, fisheries, human rights, and trade. And given how much time our MPs and PPCs spend pointing angrily at dog crap, it’s surprising how little many at the centre seem to care about our increasing inability to do anything in local government other than send angry letters to the Chief Executive.
National coalitions hurt our vote, whoever they’re with, and the results are real. Our collapse in urban Britain from 2011 onwards means that almost all of our inner cities are now completely dominated by Labour, with all that entails for local services. In 2011, Scotland and Wales returned majority SNP and Labour governments with help from disaffected Lib Dems, with predictable results for health, education, and other key services in the devolved nations. This May, we lost all our MEPs, one of the reasons why ECR overtook ALDE as the third biggest group in the parliament. Backlash from Coalition, then, has helped our opponents and weakened our ability to implement our priorities in Holyrood, Cardiff, Brussels, and in town halls across Britain.
3) The long term fate of the party is at stake.
Can we survive another coalition, either with Labour or the Tories? The answer – in terms of having some parliamentary representation and a basic structure – is probably ‘yes’. But the possibility of setting off a death spiral, similar to that suffered by the Liberals in the Thirties and Forties, should not be discounted. Furthermore, there are large areas of the country where we are possibly already dead for a generation – again, most Northern cities and inner London, but also most of Scotland outside the Highlands and Islands – and where another Coalition will destroy our identity and any chance for recovery. An argument might be made that preserving a viable liberal force in British politics is more important than any particular short-term policy gains.
Alternatively, the existential threat to the party is actually internal. We are a divided party, and the only way that we can reform ourselves is by licking our wounds in opposition. Another five years of government – particularly with the Tories – would likely strain to breaking point the compromises and annoyed silence that is currently preventing open warfare.
I don’t think we should rule out a coalition with either the Tories or Labour after May 2015. In reality, a hung parliament would force us to choose some kind of arrangement, however loose or temporary, with either party. But I do want to kill the idea that rejecting another formal Coalition is somehow stupid or self-indulgent. I also think we should be open to a confidence and supply deal next time, as Stephen Tall has suggested, even though it has some very obvious problems. Let us say to the Spectator, then – what’s wrong with being a ninny?