The Liberal Democrats are angry. Following the cabinet fallout, Paddy Ashdown yesterday “took a swipe” (in the words of the FT blog) at Cameron, in what was apparently a sanctioned move to make quite clear how the leadership feels about the way the referendum campaigning has gone. A referendum which has seen a Tory led (and financed) No campaign lie voraciously, spin incessantly, and conduct the most brutal, underhand and cheap ad hominem attacks on Coalition partners, particularly the DPM. Now, the Yes campaign will almost certainly lose.
That is a shame. AV really would have better reflected the voting habits of the British public . The post mortem will come another day. Yet despite this seeming catastrophe of a referendum (and potentially troubling local elections), the words coming out of our side of the coalition should give reason for hope; especially for Lib Dems.
This is the first time the coalition has been tested at the polls in battles which really meant more than a single parliamentary seat, and when both sides could win. For all the speculation, there is no real reason to believe the government is going to fall. That says something about our ability to be trusted in government, credibility the Lib Dems desperately need. As Paddy observed on Question Time, however, the “mood music” has changed. This should serve as a timely reminder to all those in the party getting rather comfortable with the Tories that we still have deep divisions, and moreover, that they are an untrustworthy, regressive, selfish and low bunch who Lib Dems oughtn’t trust; a comment seemingly unnecessarily explanatory for most grassroots campaigners who have been feeling this way for the last twelve months.
That’s not to undermine the coalition. We face serious problems in this country, and it is right that any opportunity to work to rectify those problems should be taken, not lost in petty political squabbles.There is a good chance come 2015 that the population, enjoying a more stable economic climate and growth based on a more sustainable model, might see things this way too. I’m proud that we have taken the plunge and that some of our ideas are now becoming policy, and everyone must realise that when you only have 57 MPs that comes at a price. That price is the acquiescence to Tory policy, and the chance that this coalition could backfire on the Liberal Democrats. Occassionally, though, the public see more than simple acquiescence coming from the yellow side of the government benches, more a positive echo of government (and Tory) lines. Should that backfire materialise when it counts in 2015, it will be all the worse if we continue to blend around the edges with the blue side of the coalition.
Many people, as is evident from more or less any political discussion these days, feel betrayed by Clegg and swathes of the current parliamentary party, rightly or wrongly. They want to punish the party, and perhaps the coalition (as I write, the early results are coming in from the council elections). Watching Lib Dems and Tories pal-up is evidently not the ‘mood music’ that people want to see. Whatever the justification for the coalition (which I support), listening to Danny Alexander share the blame for every single cut the Tories wanted but which represent anathema to most Lib Dems is unbearably cringe-worthy. Hopefully, following this farcical referendum, some of this best buddy behaviour might begin to stop.
Coalitions are not bad things, and there is room in Coalition for disagreement. There is room for debate, and to set yourself at odds with policies you don’t agree with, and I firmly believe that in the end the British public will be won round to the idea of parties working together to get things done. The Tories have gone far beyond mere debate in this referendum and now they have set the tone for a more realistic appraisal of the situation between the two parties which we should seize upon. Don’t forget, next election, they’ll be doing that to us, to our candidates. They’ll be misrepresenting our manifesto, blaming us for the things that didn’t go right, claiming single handed credit for the things that did; any other expectation is naïve.
The parliamentary party would do well to use this campaign to remember that as much as we can achieve great things in government with the Tories in these five years, it doesn’t hurt to bow to public opinion once in a while and make meaningful fuss from the top. There is nothing wrong with saying “No, Gillian, i’m not happy about everything, but we’re doing our best.” Why not, just occasionally, let the whips have a day off. Let the disapprovers of this party loose on Tory policy for a while. Cry havoc, and let slip the Farrons of war.
The country are transparently unhappy with the way the party is conducting itself, and now is the time to start changing that. Not scuppering government legislation (that will bring the government down; and if anyone wants to see why that’s a bad idea, see Canadian elections 2011). Rather, standing up and making it clear when, where and how the Lib Dems are affecting government policy (and we are). More than anything, working with the Tories in an effective, businesslike way. No pally asides, no more in-jokes, no more stupid comments into the not-quite-switched-off-mic about how Nick and Dave agree about everything. Quietly going about our business the way we should be, grudgingly bearing the tiresome task of sitting with a largely malodorous bunch of half-wits for the greater good of the country. We can work with ‘em, but we don’t drink their ale.
It seems obvious now that the unpopular tough decisions are wisely being made early. In the coming years, a lot of them will pan out well, I am confident of that. On the quiet, I think the coalition is doing a decent job, and the Lib Dems a good, and very co-operative job within it. That though, is clearly not what the voters want. This referendum, and the horrific way the Tories have run it, gives us a chance to begin to reassert our identity having already got the big stuff out of the way. A more professional and curt public attitude to our “coalition colleagues” will be a welcome beginning, and now might just be the time to make it. We need to communicate what we, not the coalition, believe in, and even more importantly, what we don’t. One thing is for sure: irrespective of the result, thanks to the No campaign, we’re all in the right sort of mood to distance ourselves from the Tories.