The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; Which Way Now for the LibDems?

The Liberal Democrat vote is tumbling, with no prospect of let up.  The party and its leader Nick Clegg are bearing the brunt of the criticism of coalition policies with the Tories taking far less of the flack.  A referendum is due in May and there is the very real prospect that the unpopularity of  the LibDems will see the opportunity for electoral reform vanish for a generation.  I spoke at length with a senior member of the parliamentary party yesterday and there is a real fear that this might happen.

So what can they do?  If they were to leave the coalition there would be a snap general election.  The LibDem vote could be halved and a majority Tory government would abandon AV.  If they carry on with the status quo the rifts in the party will grow and support will continue to fall.  The mantra from the parliamentary party is “wait and see, this is a five year parliament”.  That is a strategy of hope and hope is no strategy.

There is one route open.  The LibDems agreed to be part of a coalition government and to support a programme of legislation.  They however made no promise to remain uncritical.  Were there never any dissenting voices within the last Labour government?  Didn’t Claire Short call Tony Blair pompous and was she not branded irresponsible in return? Brown and Blair both remained in office whilst waging a cold war over the keys to Number 10.  The LibDems in contrast seem to be afraid to voice any criticism lest they should be blamed for a collapse of the coalition.

There need to be a robust defence of LibDem principles.  There needs to be visible, brave and principled debate in place of what looks to some like gutless complicity.   Where there is clear contravention of election pledges the party must learn to say no.   Bad legislation that has been improved at the margins is still bad legislation.  The party may be in government but it has all but lost its voice.

LibDem Coalition Crisis Will Surely Grow

It’s not surprising that the leaders of a party so long in the wilderness should be politically naive.  However the extent to which the LibDems are bearing the brunt of opposition to Conservative policy, particularly on tuition fees, must amaze even the most hardened Tory strategists.

Vince Cable famously said of Gordon Brown that “the House has noticed the Prime Minister’s remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean”.   Cable himself has made an equally remarkable conversion from Father Christmas to Ebenezer Scrooge.  The LibDems today fell to just 8% in the polls.   Translated into an electoral vote, that would actually mean fewer seats under proportional representation that they have now.

The mistake that the LibDem leaders made was to join the Tories in a full coalition rather that a confidence and supply agreement.  In doing so the Tories would have had to agree to enact more of the LibDems’ manifesto and politically the LibDems would have avoided being tainted as a full coalition partner in an unpopular government determined to cut spending .  They would certainly have not been dragged into supporting a policy on university fees  that they so clearly opposed.

To regain popular support, they must return to the path of principle and it is likely that those who vote with their conscience today will emerge post-crisis at the helm.   The alternative is to continue to take the rap for the cuts and to consign Liberal politics to political history.