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Liberal Democrats Should Stop Looking for Reasons to Leave the Coalition... And Start Persuading the Tories to Instead

Posted: 20/07/2012 08:38

Finally it's happened. After two years, the mouse has finally roared. That pesky minority which refuses to acknowledge that they are an irrelevant adjunct to the government, has come out and opposed the Coalition Agreement. They didn't win the last election and hardly anyone is interested in their anti-democratic views - least of all the Prime Minister. Their irritating nay-saying only serves to make them look impotent and out-of-touch. This latest Samson-style attempt to bring the whole edifice down around their ears cannot possibly work out well for them. When will Tory backbench vested interests ever learn?

Constantly threatening to bring down the government - a very difficult thing to achieve under the new rules, unless large numbers of Conservative backbenchers are willing to bite the bullet and vote that they have no confidence in David Cameron - gains nothing. Such noisy rhetoric only makes it harder to do the business of government, at a time when even the most strident small-stater has to acknowledge that there is much for the government to do.

That is why Liberal Democrats do not make such threats. Even those of us who are instinctively uneasy about working with Tories - such as the Social Liberal Forum - don't call for Liberal Democrats to walk away from the government. Anyone who tells you that the junior partner can only redeem itself by doing so is either a Labour voter or just not thinking things through. After a harrowing period, things literally cannot get any worse for the Liberal Democrats. Single digit opinion poll ratings pretty much reflect the party's core support. They have three whole years to try and turn that around. Yes, it will be difficult - and they might not manage it - but why quit when you're behind? If Liberal Democrats are to redeem themselves as a party of government, they need to do more in government. In particular they need to demonstrate that they can deliver on their core values: standing up to unaccountable power and self-interest and giving a helping hand to those who have been pushed around so much that they don't even have much influence over their own lives.

Of course that is not easy to do while in coalition with a self-interested Tory party that has shown itself willing to do more than its fair share of pushing the vulnerable around. But being in government with your natural enemies is an opportunity as well as a threat - so long as you make it clear what a coalition government is. Two different parties working together does not make it necessary - let alone smart - to prevent a united ideological vision. Negotiating in private, then telling the public that you have a common plan, is both dishonest and tactically inept. Voters are much more likely to think that coalition is a good form of government if they see what is going on. In the market, competition and transparency drive excellence - so why not in the corridors of power?

Whatever you think of House of Lords reform, last week's shenanigans will be good for the Liberal Democrats. Above all, they showed where the most damaging divisions lie in government: within a struggling Tory party. Meanwhile not a single Lib Dem sympathiser will abandon them for sticking up for their democratic, anti-patronage principles - even those for whom constitutional issues are not a priority. But equally importantly, a precedent has now been set for public disagreement. Liberal Democrats must not fail to seize it. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain - whereas the Conservatives have a great deal to lose. Whatever the Tory backwoodsmen think, they would not enjoy ruling as a minority administration one bit. They would get less done, be less popular and be forced away from their core vote. So Conservatives do not have any option but to put up with the Lib Dems, like it or not. With little left to lose, the Lib Dems can benefit hugely by making sure they don't like it. Not just to be a pain - but by standing up for what they believe in.

So, next time Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove or David Cameron flies a right-wing kite on welfare cuts, two-tiered education reforms or ever more random immigration caps, you can expect to hear Liberal Democrat ministers pointing out that such nonsense will only ever be delivered if the Conservatives win the next election on their own. Meanwhile, they will stay working in government, to ensure that deficit reduction is as fair as humanly possible.

But Liberal Democrat ministers must go further. It's time to start declaring what they would do if they won the next election too. Sure, they may also be shot down by the right-wing press - but at least their ideas will be out there for the public to judge. So let's hear Vince Cable's plans for full-blown wealth taxes, to finance the next rise in the income tax threshold. Let's hear Sarah Teather outline a Nursery Premium for disadvantaged two-year-olds and Andrew Stunell explain how local authorities will have a greater share of tax revenues to spend on invigorating local communities.

The list could go on. But the strategy is obvious. Liberal Democrats have two problems. First, they have stopped repeating what they believe in (apart from compromise and reform - both worthy, but not enough). Second, voters see them as too closely aligned with their erstwhile enemies. They can kill both birds with one stone. Assert Liberal Democrat principles, even if that means pointing out that the Tories are wrong when they seek to serve the interests of the rich. Set out new policies based on fairness and social justice, even when it drives the Tory right to distraction. In fact, especially when it does. Liberal Democrats will look weak if they walk away from this government. But so would the Conservatives. With more to lose, they are the ones over a barrel. Liberal Democrats who do not like being in coalition should talk less about finding reasons to leave and more about ways to persuade the Tories to. That means that we should annoy them as much as we can.

 
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