In the wake of the recent Oakeshott inspired madness, an argument lays unresolved, both within the Liberal Democrats and in the wider body politic. Should the party remain in government until the end or retreat early, say six months before the election, in order to let the “differentiation strategy” breathe a little?
I’ll examine both choices with as much of an open mind as I can. Let’s start with ending the government prematurely, pros and cons. The upside of such a manoeuvre is it would allow space between the Coalition and the election, a time when people could possibly readjust their view of the party. It would make Nick arguing with Cameron in the debates and in the press less weird. It would allow some focus on the general election within the party as well.
But the cons are considerable and jump out at me. For a start, we are going to be trading on our time in government heavily during the general election campaign. Not even so much on what we’ve achieved, which will be important to try and get across, but the idea that coalition government is stable and does work. Pulling out of said government damages that narrative in a way few other things could.
But more than anything, the reason I feel not so great about the idea of ending the government early is because it is exactly what the people who most loathe the party have been agitating for years to happen. I recall having a conversation with a young intern who was very, very left wing a couple of years ago about the Coalition. She said, “Clegg needs to get out now while there’s still a chance at redemption.” I was intrigued and so I said to her, “So if the Lib Dems pulled out of government and there was an election tomorrow, you’d vote for them?” She looked at me like I’d just suggested the most ridiculous thing of all time. “HELL NO!” she said very emphatically.
What she couldn’t see is that if dissolving the government wouldn’t have made her vote Lib Dem, why would it make anyone else on the left vote Lib Dem? The idea that a legion of lefties would come flooding back to the party if we were to end the government prematurely is wilfully naïve. If it would work I would be genuinely open to the idea, but it wouldn’t. The attitude displayed by the intern is fairly ubiquitous, unfortunately. It’s like the many friends I had in the wake of the formation of the government saying to me, “I will never vote Lib Dem again!” My response, nine times out of ten was, “But you never voted for us anyway.” Then the classic rejoinder: “But I would have considered it at least!”
I’ve said this before, but I need to close by saying it again: our hands have been dipped in blood and there’s no way back to the solitude of eternal third party opposition. Either no party will get a majority and we’ll be back in the mix, or that won’t happen and we’ll see where we go as a party from there. But ending the project we embarked on four years ago before time isn’t the answer. If the Tories want to end it, fine, that could be spun in our favour. But if we pull out, we will just look petulant, immature, disorganised and ultimately more interested in being safe and loved in our little corner of the House, as opposed to having to figure out how to run the country – all of the crosses our enemies wish to hang us from.
Chris Blackmore (The Walrus) says
Never mind lefties. Why should anyone at all vote for the Lib Dems? If you want the sort of thing they do, vote Tory.
There are few Lib Dems of any persuasion calling for the end of the coalition, so this piece is centred around a straw man. Even the most ardent Clegg supporter seems to accept that he’s universally disliked, it’s just the degree to which he’s become analogous with political distrust that’s a sticking point – I don’t see much evidence of this idea that he could redeem himself either.
I’m a lifelong Lib Dem voter until now, but I find it hard to see the distinction between the party and the Tories, so I suspect that I might be one of your “lefties”, like most Lib Dem voters; we were never called lefties until about 3-4 years ago, just members. Without us you have nothing but a poor clone of the Conservatives. Soon nobody will care what you and I think, because we will be seen as a fringe party – the party of 4th position. I believe this has happened because the Lib Dem cabinet members have mainly been economic liberals, making it hard for the public to discern the difference between them and the Tory cabinet. This lack of differentiation will ensure that nobody will care what we think for some time to come. Leaving the coalition early won’t help, but a new leader that unified the party again could work miracles. Since that won’t happen now we’ll have a very long time ahead to discuss these things ad infinitum during our 5 years in the political wilderness.
You’re writing from a very odd position where you seem to be in complete denial as regards the facts of the current narrative, and as such have to invent realities and demographics to write about. Clegg’s the most unpopular leader of any political party for quite some time, if that doesn’t mean anything to you that may explain why you’re so far from the consensus view on these topics. I’m afraid at one level politics is a popularity contest, and he’s not winning it so you’re touting a recipe for irrelevance.
Your first point, that there are few Lib Dems calling for the end of the coalition isn’t really true anymore. Also, there are many outside of the party who are constantly calling for it, a point I make several times in the article and is relevant.
I could argue that a more left wing version of the party would be a poor clone of Labour, but I won’t be that petty. The differences between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives are numerous and I’ll stick only with the most notable: we’re internationalist, their isolationist. In an era of increased nationalism, this is very important. We are pro-EU, the majority of the Conservative MPs and members are viciously anti. We are passionate about civil liberties; it seems the Tories embrace of certain liberal tendencies does not extend this far. We believe that there are constitutional issues that need resolving as soon as possible; the Tories resist them, even when it goes against their partisan interests. There is a reason why the Coalition has been a bumpy road the whole time and it’s not because we’re just like the Tories.
I would argue that you seem to be the one in denial about the narrative. I have no doubt that we are facing choppy electoral waters ahead. I’m simply saying that disowning what we’ve achieved to become “Labour’s cute and harmless cousin” would be the nail in the coffin.
Oh and the “lefties” I refer to in the article are specifically people who never voted Lib Dem, never mind being a member. If this was not clear, and you thought I was slagging off the social liberal wing of the party, I apologise as that was not my intention.