In 2013 Nick Clegg’s party needs to establish a more assertive identity and win voters over for bold, new reasons
The coalition will be a play in two acts. Act one had the parties acting largely in tandem – reforming public services, reversing Labour’s encroachments on civil liberties and, above all, gripping the public finances. In act two, the Liberal Democrats step away from the Conservatives. Still partners, but an arm’s length apart.
At the beginning, in 2010, the Lib Dems chose to put government stability ahead of party identity. Given the novelty of coalition government at a time of grave economic concern, it was the right decision – for the country and the party. The uncertainty of a second general election, possibly leading to a similar result, or the fragility of a minority administration could have done real damage to the UK’s standing on the financial markets. Higher interest rates, more debt, fewer jobs – not risks to take lightly. Whether you agree with their policies or not, Nick Clegg and David Cameron took the statesmanlike course in 2010.
For the Lib Dems, good government was also good politics. Voters were understandably nervous about whether the coalition could undertake the difficult tasks it faced. The Lib Dems were effectively new to Whitehall. Getting on with the hard graft of government was vital if the party was to be treated seriously by the voters next time round.
Clegg and the wiser heads among his parliamentary colleagues knew there would be a price to pay. In most political systems, junior coalition parties get the sharp end of the stick – there was no reason to think the UK would be any different. At one early strategy session, Chris Huhne warned his colleagues to be ready for a poll rating of 5%.
But the stakes for the nation were high, and the majority of Lib Dems were deadly serious about the responsibilities that came with office. They were willing to risk some unpopularity, and they got it. Some serious mistakes were also made, of course. Tuition fees were hardly deftly handled. The NHS reforms should have been stopped. The party became too insular. Genuine victories, such as the cuts in income tax for workers, were not communicated consistently enough.
But along the way some hard lessons were learned. Clegg and his ministerial team have hardened, too. When the Tories failed to deliver Lords reform, Clegg immediately killed the boundary review that would have delivered Cameron extra seats. He decisively parted company from the PM on Leveson, and looks ready to kill the data communications bill. Cameron and George Osborne have learned in the last six months that nice Mr Clegg can play hardball.
Now comes act two. The government is established. The boat can be rocked without serious risk of capsizing. Next year will be crucial for the Lib Dems and, by implication, for the coalition.
On 17 December Clegg will set out his own script for the year ahead, testing the idea that coalition governments can function even as the two parties clearly show their separate colours. The inner workings of government will be on display as never before. The Lib Dems will make their own position clear long before the government does. The necessary compromises will become badges of pride for a mature, open government, rather than dirty secrets, tucked away.
The million-vote question is whether this will improve Lib Dem electoral fortunes. It needs to. The pain of act one has to be followed by some gains in act two. The May local elections will provide an early test. Clearly, the Lib Dems need to do better than in the last two rounds. The local elections will also show whether Clegg’s party can take seats off the Conservatives – who they will face in greater numbers this time – which is a central plank of his centrist electoral strategy. (Most Lib Dem marginal parliamentary seats are Tory-facing.)
There is no doubting the scale of the challenge. The party has suffered a haemorrhage of support. A significant minority of 2010 supporters were protest voters, backing the party precisely because it was never in power; they were angry at the decision to go into government. An even bigger chunk was made up of disenchanted leftwingers; they hate the fact that it was with the Conservatives. Public sector workers made up another sizable portion, with whom spending cuts have inevitably gone down badly.
But there was no sensible alternative to these decisions. And there is no undoing them. Tacking to the left now would make the party look ridiculous. The siren voices on the Labour benches would lead the party on to the rocks.
Coalition act two is not about trying to reassert a Lib-Dem identity c 2010. It is about establishing a new identity, and winning people to the party’s side for new reasons. A party seasoned by office, holding to the political centre ground, and true to liberal principles. A party that has made mistakes, but owns up to them, as Clegg did on tuition fees. A party that can take the hard choices necessary to protect our economy – which Labour cannot. A party that fights for fairness, which the Conservatives will not. A party that garners respect for having walked through the fire and not only survived but come out fighting.
It would be foolish to assume Clegg will succeed. But it would be dangerous to assume he will fail. Next year is the year the Lib Dem strategy – deliver, then differentiate – will be tested. A more assertive stance in act two of coalition should mean greater support and more votes. If not, the curtain will probably fall on the coalition before 2015.