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Commentary 346 – June 2011
25 May 2011 (10:05:50)


The First Law of Holes states that, if you are in a hole, stop digging. The hole in which the Liberal Democrats have resided since the May elections is already deeper than any encountered since the merger.

There have been some welcome signs since 5 May that Nick Clegg has decided to ‘stop digging’ and is finally prepared both to claim credit for Lib Dem influence in the government and to stress the differences between his party and the Conservatives.

Not before time. Whoever thought up the line ‘not a cigarette paper between us’ used in the initial months of the coalition should be sacked before they do any more damage.

The party’s fortunes in the past year have been so dire that one is tempted to question the sanity - never mind judgement - of those who decided to present the coalition as a seamless meeting of minds in which the Lib Dems took responsibility for everything the government does.

From the start, the coalition should have been presented as it is now beginning to be – that the results of the last election left the Lib Dems with no other viable option, that the party has a coalition agreement delivering at least some of its goals, and that the whole thing is a pragmatic response to the parliamentary arithmetic and the country’s dire finances.

Leading Lib Dems instead spent most of the past year presenting themselves as indistinguishable from the Tories – in which case, why vote for the monkey when one could vote for the organ grinder?

The party has been incalculably damaged by those who chose to promote this government as being akin to that of a conventional single party. It isn’t. Coalitions by their nature have parties with different philosophies and objectives in them and it is only by showing what makes this government different from a majority Conservative one that the Lib Dems can begin to find a way back into winning the public confidence.

It is of course perfectly sensible that Lib Dem ministers should have courteous working relationships with their Conservative counterparts. The damage has come from turning this into the public impression that, in addition to sinking personal acrimony, the policy differences have all gone too.

The task that faces the party is harder for the loss of over 700 councillors – the engine room of the party at local level – and the demoralisation of its grassroots.

Just about the only thing that might re-energise them is the spectacle of the party not only having influence in government but being seen and heard to. The Tories will just have to put up with it.

The dire election and referendum results present very few silver linings, but at least they demolish some myths that have sidetracked certain people at different times from the core job of building credibility for the party.

The first is the idea – long beloved of a certain kind of well-meaning liberal – that “voters want to see parties working together”.

Not judging by the results of 5 May they don’t, Voters want to see governments doing things of which they approve, or least judge to be necessary. Whether that is a single party or a coalition is irrelevant.

Anyone who now thinks that a promise of pluralistic politics in itself appeals to voters should be locked in a padded cell with nothing to read except May’s election results.

By all means let’s hope the Lib Dems can be credibly judged on the influence they have had on the coalition by 2015, but it is beyond belief that they will now gain anything by the mere fact of having participated in a coalition government, whatever the exponents of pluralism as an end in itself once thought.

The second myth is that Labour can be relied upon. As the referendum showed, Ed Miliband, even when he has been in office for too short a time to become unpopular, commands so little influence in his own party that he cannot even get a majority of its MPs to agree with him on AV.

Behind Miliband’s pleasant and plausible countenance lurks, as the ‘no’ campaign showed, the real Labour Party – the Blunketts, Reids and all the other loathsome authoritarians who brought us the Iraq war and ID cards.

We now know where Labour really stands on political reform, just as the record of the last government amply demonstrated what it really thinks about civil liberty.

To those Lib Dems intending to engage with Miliband’s policy review, save your breath after this. Even if he took any of your ideas on board, he lacks the clout to quell Labour’s repellent illiberal core.

The final myth is that the public would like to have lots of referendums and will engage in serious policy debates around the issues raised.

We now know better. The AV contest showed that referendums by themselves do not catch public attention, and that vested interests of one kind or another, and their press supporters, will simply buy the result.

Avoid the diversions, rebuild trust and credibility – it will be a hard slog but 5 May destroyed the idea that there are short cuts.

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