There are people both inside and outside of the Liberal Democrats for whom the answer to the above question is obvious. Of course it was, you fool. Were you watching last Thursday? However, I disagree. I don’t think it was a mistake for the Lib Dems to have gone into coalition with the Tories and I’ll spend the rest of this article explaining why that is.
If you go back to the start of the 2010 election short campaign, the Lib Dems were polling in the late teens. Then came the first TV debate after which they started pulling in numbers in the late-20s, early-30s. Hopes were high within the party. Talk of 100 plus seats or even being the official opposition was in the air. But then polling day came and the party ended up losing seats, going from 62 to 57.
At the time, we figured that Cleggmania had simply had no lasting effect. But with the benefit of hindsight and also being able to see how the 2015 election result played out, I no longer think this was the case. I think the Cleggmania thing essentially saved the Lib Dems a whole bunch of seats that might have otherwise gone. In other words, the Lib Dems were about to get squeezed in a “change” election, and then something weird in the form of the debate triumph came along and changed the narrative enough to hang onto to some seats the party might otherwise have lost. The constituencies in the southwest the Lib Dems hung onto in 2010, lost this time round, are a great example.
So essentially what I’m saying is that the course the Lib Dems were on should have run out of steam at the 2010 election. Part of the leap of 1997 was down to the Conservative collapse, and now that the Tories were on the rise again, surely most of the Lib Dem seats would be under real threat? But again, something gave the Lib Dems enough of a boost to hang on to many more seats than would have otherwise been expected, psephologically speaking.
This then placed the Liberal Democrats in a perilous position, one from which there were no particularly great choices. One was to try and form a government with Labour. This would not have had a majority and wouldn’t have lasted. The election held six months, a year later, would have seen Labour and the Lib Dems crushed in a manner similar to that we’ve just witnessed. The Tories would definitely have got those seats in the southwest; I think the Lib Dems would have ended up in the single figures as is the case today.
The second choice was to do nothing at all – prop no one up, no deals, no confidence and supply. Just sit back and watch the dust settle. This would have resulted in a Tory minority trying to pass a Queen’s Speech, failing, and then winning the subsequent election. This probably would have been the least bad option for the Lib Dems electorally, but the southwest still would have gone and I think the party would have been left with somewhere between 15 and 20 MPs.
The last choice was the Tory coalition. Which essentially bought the party five years. Five years to hope that the record in government could change people’s minds. But it didn’t. So we ended up where we probably should have in 2010.
Except at least the party has had the experience of government. And while no one wants to hear about it now, if the Lib Dems could possibly rebuild, that experience could sway some people who wouldn’t have voted otherwise to do so again. That may seem like a distant and extremely hopeful ambition. Perhaps it is. But I still don’t see how collapsing in 2010, without having had that experience in government, would have been so much better than doing the same thing in 2015 but with no way back.
George Lee says
Going into coalition was the right thing to do.
The Lib Dems were crushed because of their “piggy-in-the-middle” campaign in the context of the rise of UKIP and the Greens. Broadly the electorate did not want UKIP and they did not want another coalition they wanted a decisive result of Labour or Conservative, while the protest vote went away from the Lib Dems to Green and UKIP.
I agree that in five years time the Lib Dem coalition experience will be seen much more positively. Certainly Clegg will not become the Lib Dem’s Blair.
Also in 5 years time it is hard to see the SNP still being relevant – unless of course we have left Europe by then.
People like me had voted for LibDems in past because I believed in PR.
LDs had their first chance in 40 years to get PR introduced, and they showed they had no real interest in PR. They could have entered a 5 yr coalition with the the simple demand: introduce PR with no referendum and we will support every single policy over the next 5 years. They would then have known that at least in future elections, the UK would not be run as an elective dictatorship.
Instead, LDs proved they really had no commitment to the only core policy which distinguished them from Labour & Tories. No wonder they have been wiped out, and deservedly so. Bunch of loser who dropped their core principle as soon as they got a whiff of power and thought that in 2015 First Passed The Post might give them a majority.
Trevor Heap says
Please don’t confuse AV with PR.
Completely different animals.
Jonathan Pile says
Nick – I think your’e still in denial. It’s over. The Coalition was right for the country but wrong for us. We’ve thrown ourselves under the bus before – 1915,1931,1940, 2010 and will probably do it again. Bad for the party.
I tend to agree with Jonathan. The question for me is ‘Would any other party throw themselves under a bus like the Liberals seems to have done repeatedly?
Only time will tell whether you’re right. I can’t help but think that in the Southwest heartland, going into bed with the Tories, our main enemy and must have disrupted massively our core vote.
David Dalley says
The “least bad” option would surely have been the best option (with hindsight).
I fear for the Lib Dems in the coming years. Having been crushed by the Tories in the south and with the prospect of Labour getting their act together under a less bumbling leader… where on earth are your followers going to come from? If Labour try to reclaim some of the centre ground they’ve recently ceded to the Tories… the Lib Dems must surely go left? But that’s where the Greens and SNP now reside. I feel incredibly sorry for Tim Farron who is a likeable and capable chap. If elected leader… he’ll have an (almost) impossible task ahead of him.
Tom Still says
If the Lib Dems had not gone into coalition I think most people would have respected their integrity and voted for them again in 2010. They would have picked up votes from both Labour and the Conservatives. At this point we would have had the three party politics we were already approaching. Then they would have been able to pursue their policies holding both of the major parties to ransom.
People that voted Lib Dem were not giving them the mandate to prop up a Tory government and feel cheated. They sold their soul for a taste of power and now they are facing the consequences. They utterly blew it, letting the SNP, Greens and Ukip in. The 2015 Lib Dem demolition was entirely predictable and deserved.
You’re assuming that a minority Tory government would have lasted the full five years. I doubt it would have lasted much more than five months. The Tories would have engineered a defeat on some populist measure and used that as an excuse for another election.
In that election, the Tories (and, probably, Labour too) would have insisted that a vote for the Lib Dems was a vote for instability. They would also have accused the party of bottling it as soon as they were offered a bit of power.
I disagreed with a lot of what the coalition did, but I agree with Nick (where have I heard that before?) that the Lib Dems had little choice. From the moment Cameron announced on the day after the election that a coalition was on offer, the Lib Dems were stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
I think the key issue here is voting reform. The LDs should never have allowed anything other than a very strong commitment to some form of proportional voting to enter the UK system. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean the House of Commons (although that’s obviously the key goal) but could have meant HoL reform to a much more straightforward Senate (with additional powers) elected by PR on an offset schedule to the now-fixed general elections. The important point here is that all the discussion of whether LDs might be crushed at one point or another goes away when you have fair votes. Most of the analysis about this election has been all about how voters responded tactically to a set of deliberately misleading messages put out by (largely) the Tories, but also by other parties. Take away FPTP, kill off tactical voting and then people actually vote for what they believe in. The failure, after the first episode in government in 80 years, to achieve any kind of voting reform whatsoever is the bitterest blow of all, and the one that has cost the party the wipeout we’ve just experienced.
David Evans says
I’m afraid this all looks a bit too much like re-writing history with a bit of let’s drop in a few unverifiable “facts” about how Nick really saved the party in 2010. He blew it totally; undermined his predecessor, reorganised things in his image, surrounded himself with so many sycophants, refused to listen to the party (NHS Reform and Secret Courts inter alia), or the electorate year after year, and has just about totally destroyed a proud party its values. Things are much, much worse because of his period of leadership.
David Hook says
It seems that The LibDems were so desperate to be involved in government that they dived in too quickly. It was clearly the right thing to do, but they should have obtained to cast iron guarantees about policy before agreeing to join the Tories. They allowed the tuition fees to be increased far too easily, but because it was so early in parliamentary proceedings they were unwilling to rock the boat. They have paid for that big-time.
Rod Parker says
By joining the Conservatives the Lib Dems made themselves irrelevant. A large number of people came to perceive them as having no point. If they were no longer left of centre, why vote for them one may as well get the real thing and vote Conservative. It will take a long time to re-position themselves in such a way that voters would have the confidence to vote for them.
As a new member of the party, I cannot comment on the history of the Lib Dems and its internal workings. I can only speak as a “electorant” and give a voter’s point of view.
To me, before 2010 the Lib Dems were irrelevant. The rise of Nick Clegg gave the Lib Dems some gravitas and brought them to electorate’s mind. That was certainly the case for me.
After the disastrous last Labour government, I felt that I moved to the right call nought more fiscal policy and better financial decisions are required for the country. However I was worried that the Tories would make deep, damaging and savage cuts to essential are public spending. With the Lib Dems in coalition, the Tory cuts were controlled and the less extreme policies were tempered. That is why I voted again for the Lib Dems last week. I felt the coalition had done a good job in the past five years and ideally I wanted it to continue.
The rise of you kip was indeed a threat, but it seems the electorate is more sensible and not wanting to live so far to the right. Therefore I believe that the centre slightly right party accords with the feeling of much of the electorate in the country. Therefore I believe alert to the left is a big mistake if that was the downfall of labour last week. I think the majority in this country want a centric party and that is the Lib Dems natural ground and that’s where I believe they should stay.