Just before the general election I went to a hustings in my hometown, with my parents and some family friends. This was just after the first leaders debate and the outbreak of Cleggmania. Our constituency had been represented, for the previous thirteen years, by a very popular Liberal Democrat, who had turned the seat from a conservative stronghold, in the 90s, to the nearest thing the Liberal Democrats have to a safe seat. Labour had been squeezed down to 10% of the vote and all but given up on the seat, putting forward a candidate who was younger than me. In the event, the evening turned out to be a bit of a one horse race.
The Conservative candidate’s opening gambit was that whilst the incumbent was all well and good these Liberal Democrats would never have any real influence and only he could guarantee a “seat at the top table” from which to represent his constituent’s interests. This was delivered in such a pompous style that it was hard to hold back laughter. As one of the family friends said later, far from being at the top table he was “lobby fodder – at best”. He compounded his error by saying, in reply to a question about the representation of women, that we needed more women in government because “women know how to balance a household budget”.
Neither the Labour nor UKIP candidates managed to hold their own under even the most gentle of questioning. The sitting MP just stood up and confidently laid out his record in office and after that any sense of competition was just blown out of the water.
The questions mainly stuck to local issues and by the end of the evening the audience had sunk into a stupour. On the final question I thought of something to ask. I put up my hand but someone else was chosen. His question was something parochial about primary schools that had been covered earlier in the evening. You could feel the sense of anticlimax in the room. Then the host, our local vicar, decided to put an end to that question and take a new one. This time I was picked. Phrasing my question carefully to maximize the chance of a straight answer, I asked our MP, in the event of a hung Parliament upon what basis would the Liberal Democrats choose a coalition partner and prioritising which policies.
There was a rumble of interest as the audience roused from their stupour. He replied (or didn’t reply) that it wasn’t vote Clegg get Cameron, or vote Clegg get Brown but that a vote for him would get Nick Clegg and Vince Cable (this was back when this still had some cache) and that if we wanted to know their priorities we should look at their manifesto. A couple of weeks later he was returned to office, the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Conservative and he himself was made a junior government minister.
Looking at events since, their manifesto doesn’t seem to have been such an accurate indicator of their action in coalition. It has become clear that, even as early as the coalition negotiations, Nick Clegg was arguing against his party’s own stated position on deficit reduction. Of course since then we have had the u-turn on tuition fees from most of the Liberal Democrat front bench and a good number of their backbenchers, as well. This was something that went beyond a manifesto commitment, each Liberal Democrat MP, individually, signed unequivocal pledges, promising not to raise fees, garnering lots of votes in the process. Now we learn that they may even back down on control orders, conceding their one remaining position of high ground on civil liberties. At least one Lib Dem MP has dishonestly tried to argue that there apparent argument that their apparent reversal is in fact not a reversal at all.
The more common argument has been that they didn’t win the election and so are in no position to implement their manifesto, and if the public wants to see Lib Dem policies, they should elect a Lib Dem majority. This is not only irrelevant in the case of tuition fees – the controversy was not over their manifesto, which people cannot expect to be implemented in full in coalition (although it would be nice to see some of it), it was about individual pledges by individual Lib Dem candidates to vote a certain way- but disingenuous. Nobody seriously expected the Lib Dems to win an overall majority and, as the exchange in my local Baptist church hall shows, people were most highly concerned with what would happen in the event of a coalition. Most importantly, whilst the Lib Dems did not win the election, neither did the Conservatives. They are now in the position of pushing through the most radically conservative fiscal policy seen in generations, to devastating effect to many if not most people in the country, with a 36.1% vote share on a 65.1% turnout. That’s just 23.5% of the available vote. They have only been able to do this because a party has completely reversed the positions on which it campaigned. There is a fundamental subversion of the democratic principle here.
This all brings us to the revelations in the Daily Telegraph. Several Liberal Democrats, including Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and my very own Steve Webb MP, were recorded by Telegraph journalists posing as constituents, making indiscrete comments about their coalition partners. Notwithstanding Vince Cable’s apparent inability to maintain blood flow to his brain in the presence of certain female journalists, these revelations actually make me respect them more. The worst part of the Lib Dems’ incorporation into the government has been the constant cheerleading for the policies that have been fed to them; the pretence that nothing is wrong. The suggestion that there may be policies that “haven’t seen the light of day” because of Lib Dem intervention and that they may be picking their battles is encouraging. The only hope for coalition between such diametrically opposed parties is one of open negotiation, where the differences are clearly delineated, possibly with independent portfolios. This would be challenging for British politics, with its dominant tradition that the government must maintain a united front against the public, with whips and collective responsibility. It would certainly mean running the gamut of press obsessed with gossip and psychodrama. Instead the Liberal Democrats seem to be being gradually cannibalised by their senior partners in government.
In reality, this was always going to be an extremely damaging term of office for whichever government was formed in May, especially with the numbers as they were. Labour couldn’t have survived another term of office without suffering electoral wipeout. No party has ever governed for more than four terms, and Labour was facing a tough economy and falling popularity. The Lib Dems faced a choice of patching together a wafer thin overall majority with an unpopular party with an unpopular leader and a rag tag of minor parties with their own agendas, or tying itself to a party whose policies its supporters abhorred. The only question was who was going to take the poisoned chalice. With their poll ratings going through the floor, the Lib Dems are now in a dire position. Do they activate Vince Cable’s nuclear weapon soon and face an angry electorate, or soldier on, possibly sustaining even more damage? They may, even now, be past the point of no return.