Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

End of Term Report: Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats, possibly slightly to their surprise found themselves holding the balance of power at the last election and that led to them going into coalition. So how have they done in the last five years?

How do we measure what they have done? On one hand we can measure “how well they have governed” – if we can agree what we mean by “well”. On the other hand we can look at it from the point of view of raw politics.

In terms of policy the Liberals seem unprepared for coalition. Some of their senior MPs may have got their minds around policy as a real instrument of change, but to many of their activists policy is an expression of party purity. Possibly as a consequence of this the policy portfolio that they took into coalition talks consisted of grand ideas for reform and small pet policy projects. With hindsight we can see how this has led to their current predicament.

Policy: Grand Ideas for Reform

With the exception of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act the reform agenda has failed dismally.

Electoral Reform (to a proportional system that gave representation to a wider diversity of views) was neutered by the Conservatives. The Liberals negotiated a right to put reform to the public, but failed to tie down the referendum question – or a promise of Conservative support. Possibly this was the best that was possible, but it resulted in a referendum on AV – a system no one really wanted – and a vigorous and successful Conservative lead “No” campaign (68 to 32 per cent against). What this has done to the reform agenda is currently incalculable – it may have put back this reform by a generation (despite claims in the Independent that 60% now support electoral reform).

Lords Reform also failed in a nasty little squabble together the ill-conceived Conservative plan for Constituency equalisation – against criteria so tight that the constituency link would be constantly undermined.

Two major fails – but possibly these ideas for reform were never feasible.

Policy: Pet Policies

In terms of pet policies (such as the Pupil Premium, Free School Meals, Raising the Personal Allowance, and Pension Reform) they have been more successful – partly because the Conservatives did not really object to these policies – so much so that they are now claiming the credit!

The pet policy of not increasing tuition fees became a rock on which the Conservatives were delighted to wreck them. The Liberals have tried to put the case for the tuition fees policy, but the combined scorn of Labour and the Conservatives means that no one is listening (or reading).

Raw Politics

The Liberals have not been good at the raw politics. Yet if you are the minor party in a coalition you have to be good at the raw politics. You have to make the case that you are a moderating influence and demonstrate that that influence has been for the common good. Unlike the other parties you cannot be too “dogma driven” because if you go into government you may have to compromise – towards the right to support Conservatives but to the left to support Labour. The others only have one direction of compromise. There is therefore a danger that you are seen as politically promiscuous.

The political trick is to ensure that your successes in coalition are appreciated by the opposition and their supporters. These successes can be either in moderating the policies of your majority partner or in initiatives that have wide support. The Liberals do not seem to have been able to pull off this trick.

They have also been unable to throw off the “broken promise” tag that is shackled around their neck. Part of this is because they fluffed the policy reversal being unable to support, oppose or abstain on the proposal being put forward by Vince Cable – their economic guru. They lost so much credibility that they can’t point out that they are no worse than the big two old parties because as noted before people aren’t listening.

Yet they may find that their incumbency strategy – where their sitting MPs fight their personal elections as by-election – works and more of them survive than expected. They may then be in the curious position of being fewer in number but none-the-less being just as vigorously wooed by the two old parties.

In many respects they won’t want this – going back into coalition with the Tories will finally kill much of their support, whilst going into coalition with Labour will open them to accusations of being turn-coats. As an electorate, we do not have the same sophistication as other countries which have got their minds around what coalition government involves, and we expect purity from our political parties.

The Liberals need to go back into good old honest opposition!

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