Watching the post-election Lib Dem implosion is painful. I’ve read many tweets from people saying that it was entirely predictable from the moment they hooked up with the Tories. I disagree. I was one of those people who voted LD in 2010 and who was excited at the prospect of a proper coalition government in the UK. I thought it might mark the beginning of a new, more continental, consensual kind of politics. If I was naive and wrong then so were many other people, including practically the entire Liberal Democrat Party. Why were we wrong? Here are a few speculative thoughts:
Cultural disconnect. Many Lib Dems, including crucially Nick Clegg himself, have strong roots in Europe and European politics and feel comfortable with coalition politics. They underestimated the degree to which this is alien to British politics. The adversarial British system will not disappear over night (as much as we wish it would). This being so, the Lib Dems seem to have badly overestimated the degree of influence they would have within a coalition where the larger partner has no culture or tradition of compromise.
Perhaps most importantly, they also badly underestimated public patience and understanding for the nature of coalition politics. Without a tradition of coalition and compromise, British voters simply couldn’t understand or forgive the fact that the party which they had voted for, and put into government, was unable to deliver on its manifesto pledges. The junior coalition partner, put where it was by voters protesting the two-party establishment, was always going to alienate those voters as soon as it became part of that establishment.
Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that Lib Dem tactics and strategy could have been better. Look at this table:
This is pretty damning. True, some of the policies in the right-hand column do actually reflect Liberal Democrat (or at least Orange Book) values, and if this came as a surprise to some people who voted for them in 2010, well, they only have themselves to blame for not doing their research. But on key issues, key red lines (such as tuition fees), the Lib Dems gave ground; and if they got anything in return (that left-hand column should not be that empty) then they spectacularly failed to get this across to the voting public.
On several occasions during the life of this coalition government, red lines were crossed and the junior partner should have pulled the plug. (For example, after the European Council veto debacle of 9 December 2011.) There would have been casualties, but the party would probably have survived in better shape than it now is or will be for a long time post-2015.
No doubt there is a grand strategy behind the decision to stick it out and keep this coalition government alive. But the handling of the doomed electoral reform referendum gives me absolutely no faith in the powers of Lib Dem strategists.
Edit – in the interests of fairness, I point to this article reporting Nick Clegg’s party conference speech last year in Glasgow which he used to highlight sixteen issues on which the Lib Dems had blocked Tory policies. That list of sixteen is not exhaustive. So the table above is not a fair representation, except of the general public’s impressions, and that matters of course. Because the Lib Dem brand is very badly damaged and there’s no point in denying it.
(edited twice on 28 May)