Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 October 2012
There was a time, not so long ago, when I was all in favour of co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. From the early 1990s until 2007, I couldn’t see fundamental ideological differences between the two parties – and thought that the Lib Dems’ enthusiasm for Europe, proportional representation and civil liberties, and their caution on foreign military adventures, might be good influences on Labour. I annoyed Tribune readers during the 2001 and 2005 general election campaigns by arguing for tactical voting against the Tories – which was, I admit, my intention.
Two things changed my mind: the refusal of the then leader of the Lib Dems, Menzies Campbell, to consider the offer of cabinet seats soon after Gordon Brown became prime minister in summer 2007; and the election of Nick Clegg as Lib Dem leader after Campbell resigned later that year.
Clegg was the real decider for me. He was an ambitious young politician – elected to parliament for the first time in 2005 – who had been one of the moving spirits behind the Orange Book, a collection of essays published in 2004 that marked a concerted attempt to shift the Lib Dems from the social-democratic ground they’d occupied since their creation into small-state free-market liberalism.
I twigged that Clegg would go with the Tories pretty much from the start, though I was surprised at the alacrity with which he concluded the coalition deal in 2010 and initially almost as surprised at the concessions he appeared to have got from David Cameron.
Today, it’s clear that the deal has gone horribly wrong for the Lib Dems. As Polly Toynbee and David Walker make clear in their scathing new book on the coalition, Dogma and Disarray, the one thing they got from the Tories that has actually come to pass, the raising of income-tax thresholds, isn’t particularly progressive, and every one of the Lib Dems’ much-vaunted political reforms – electoral reform for the House of Commons, a largely elected second chamber, reform of political funding – is dead.
Orange Book liberalism has turned the Lib Dems into foot-soldiers for the most right-wing government since 1945, a national coalition like that of the 1930s, making similar policy mistakes.
And now, well, the reckoning. Left-leaning voters have long-since abandoned the Lib Dems: the party has been on 10 per cent or thereabouts in the opinion polls for nearly two years and shows no sign of recovery. Last week’s Lib Dem conference in Brighton was a sorry spectacle, Clegg’s leader’s speech the worst at any conference since Iain Duncan Smith’s “quiet man” performance 10 years ago. There’s still talk about Clegg being usurped by Vince Cable, but Cable’s time has run out: he’ll be 73 by the time of the next election if it happens as planned in 2015. And otherwise the Lib Dems have the lovely Christopher Huhne – who is still embroiled in a ludicrous legal action with his ex-wife – and, er, that’s just about it. Paddy Ashdown might just give them some credibility, but he’s the same age as Cable. And as for Simon Hughes …
The desperation of the Lib Dems’ plight has given rise to merriment in Labour ranks, which I share to some extent. They got themselves into this mess, and it’s down to them to get themselves out of it.
But a few words of caution. First, a collapse of the Lib Dem vote will benefit the Tories more than Labour, even without boundary changes or a Tory-Lib Dem electoral pact. Except in a handful of seats they hold, Lib Dem MPs face Tories as their main challengers. If Ukip supporters vote Tory at a general election and the Lib Dems plunge, the Tories get a lot more seats.
Second, it’s still not impossible that the Tories and Lib Dems will agree a pact before the next general election. All the talk in the past couple of weeks has been about how the Lib Dems are differentiating themselves from the Tories and possibly preparing for life in a centre-left coalition – but that isn’t their only option by any means. The Tories and Lib Dems could still arrange a non-aggression agreement on sitting MPs, for example, and the temptation to do so will increase every month that the opinion polls show the Tories well below what they need to win an outright victory and the Lib Dems heading for a parliamentary party that can fit in the back of a London cab.
Labour has to keep open the option of co-operation with the Lib Dems after the next general election – and it would be sensible to have a plan for a possible coalition ready to roll if needs be in 2015. But it would be idiotic to cosy up to Clegg or Cable right now. Let them stew, and see how it goes.