There have been many grumbles and gripes on the Lib Dem back benches recently over the coalition government. There is a feeling, perhaps not unjustifiably, that the Liberal Democrats are simply propping up a Conservative government, providing cover for the Tories when things are tough and being forgotten in the achievements of the government. Indeed, Lib Dem MP Tim Farron recently called the Conservative Party ‘a toxic brand’, saying ‘it’s not our [the Liberal Democrats’] job to detoxify it’. Mr Farron also spoke of another key concern within the party – that the party’s own brand could be damaged, saying ‘our identity is going to be potentially compromised if we are not careful’.
So, if this view really is held by many within the party, and these concerns are shared by voters, then why did Nick Clegg judge it a good idea to enter into the agreement we now see played out in Westminster? My view is that he, and his party, were caught on the horns of a dilemma, and that the coalition agreement was the option which would be most useful in the long-term to the party – but it is clear, even now, that the short-term damage will be tremendous.
Since the election, Liberal Democrat Party memberships have been declining, with Labour’s membership increasing at an almost identical rate, as many left-wing Lib Dems, disenfranchised by the party’s decision to back the Conservatives rather than Labour once this hung parliament was created, defect to Labour. At the next election, the Liberal Democrats will have to play their cards very carefully – they cannot criticise the Conservatives for mistakes made over the last government, as they were an integral part of it; nor can they criticise Labour, who will have been out of government for some time – 5 years, if the coalition holds and the fixed-term Parliament is allowed to come to fruition. They will have to simply point out the differences in where they see the country going in the future, and take the hit from voters who either decide that a vote for the Tories is much the same as a vote for the Liberal Democrats (rightly or wrongly) or that Labour would bring about left-wing legislation much more effectively. Was this situation avoidable?
For me, the answer to that question is no. Once a hung parliament was declared, the Liberal Democrats, as the third party, had three options: they could form a coalition with the Conservatives; they could form a coalition with Labour; or they could sit back, and allow the Conservatives to govern as a minority government, supporting or rejecting each bill as they saw fit. Let me deal with each option in turn.
A coalition with the Conservatives would alienate many left-wing Liberal Democrats, who would defect to Labour. This agreement would also have put off many right-leaning Liberals, who may have decided that a vote for the Lib Dems would in the end mean a coalition government, and as such simply ended up voting Conservative, in view of the fact that the Conservatives were more likely to win a majority and therefore be able to put right-wing policies into government more effectively. This situation could be repeated at every closely-contested election hereafter, meaning that many previously-Lib Dem voters would only vote that way in elections where nationally the result was essentially already determined (e.g. 1997).
A coalition with Labour would, however, have been even more disastrous, in view of the fact that the government was perceived publicly to be inadequate and in need of a change. To support a party which was categorically defeated at the polls would have caused irreparable PR damage for the Lib Dems, and in a political landscape dominated by those two letters, this was simply not a feasible option, no matter how much closer these two parties were ideologically.
But to allow a minority government would be to undermine one of the Liberal Democrats’ key demands – voting reform. For a party which pushes for Proportional Representation (a voting scheme which would increase the possibility of a hung parliament at every election to nigh on 100%) to miss the opportunity to show that parties could work together would send the message that they were either not serious about voting reform or downright hypocritical.
So, whilst none of these options seemed particularly attractive, the party’s leadership had to bite the bullet and make a decision. And in the end, I believe that the decision they made was the right one: this way, the Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to implement some of their policies (e.g. the ‘Pupil Premium’) whilst also dealing with the argument that a vote for the Lib Dems was a wasted vote as they would never get the opportunity to have a say in government. Where Clegg and co. will need to be careful is that the party is able to keep its separate identity at the end of this Parliament, and that the left-wing party members do not bring the whole government crashing around their ears before the opportunity of voting reform is seen through.
By Duncan Sim