I always thought it would. That the desire to make change happen and govern, as opposed to simply remaining in opposition, would prevail, including for those members of the Liberal Democrat movement who were in it because they saw the Party as more authentically “left” than Labour.
As we approach the first anniversary, it’s safe to say that the honeymoon between David and Nick, and particularly their respective parties, is well and truly over. When the Coalition was first formed, and we all basked in the sunshine of a new political era, many people thought (myself included) this was too big a deal for the participants to let it fail. Indeed, the early signs were good. The chemistry between the two leaders looked genuinely strong and their joint messages were coherent and compelling. Respected Liberal Democrats received prominent Ministerial roles and we all wondered if this was the start of an entirely new way of conducting politics.
There were rumbles of discontent though at the outset, not just from the backbenches, where both sides were aghast at concessions being made, but particularly at the grassroots, where years of mutual antipathy were never going to disappear overnight.
As the year has progressed, the voices of discontent have grown ever louder and more widespread. The Lib Dem Spring Conference rejected as anticipated the Coalition’s NHS reforms, swiftly joined by the BMA and the Royal College of Nursing. Conservative activists have gritted their teeth in the face of such ‘disloyalty’, but many now see the AV referendum and the forthcoming local and national elections as an ideal opportunity for payback.
Also, for those students of politics, the desire to both be in Government and oppose it (Cable, Huhne etc.) is perfectly understandable from their point of view but it feels a bit rich to some – if dissent over the Coalition’s actions is excessively displayed it gets to a point where neutrals are entitled to ask why someone stays within a Government if they feel so passionately against core areas of policy – tuition fees, NHS reform, rate of savings being asked from Councils.
In the months ahead Nick Clegg’s position as Party Leader may well face serious and sustained rumbling – that’s not totally new for a Leader – Tony Blair governed for years ignoring that sort of noise –but he did have a direct public mandate from which to draw strength. The AV referendum will be lost – that’s without doubt now – lacklustre campaigns, lack of public buy-in, daft Yes to AV messaging (the billboard I passed on the M4 yesterday said “Cut the Number of Safe Seats for MPs” – that’s it sing it after me – “What do we want? “Fewer Safe Seats for MPs! When do we want it? “Now . Erm. – pay attention at the back”. Precisely.
So, whilst all this adds up to a very difficult patch we are nowhere near a coup de grace moment for the Coalition yet. Nowhere near it. It was always going to be a bumpy ride and the current turbulence is totally expected. The cuts haven’t yet started to bite. The local elections will be bad. The fallout from a poor performance at the elections and a failure to secure voting reform will be a huge challenge for the Liberal Democrats and, by extension, the Coalition itself but let’s not overstate the relevance of the hyperbole that will inevitably follow.
The General Election is where it’s at. Things will get much worse for the Coalition than in the wake of May 5th 2011. But if you ask me if I am as sure of the Coalition’s longevity as I was six months ago, then the clear answer is ‘no’. It is less certain that the Liberal Democrat grass roots, not least in Wales and Scotland, pounded by very tough local election results, seized on by Labour will sustain the Coalition for the long term. I genuinely wonder if tackling the deficit at this speed is sufficient to bind the Coalition together in a sustainable way over the next four years. It may be. It may not. Much also depends on the manner in which the Coalition disseminates news on areas where it is doing well.
For the Orange Bookers, the Coalition is ideologically easy to handle; it makes sense; the tough decisions fit into an intellectual framework. Just like Labour and the Conservatives Lib Dems are a politically diverse bunch. For that third of Lib Dem activists (Peter Hyman on BBC Newsnight on 26th April greatly overestimated this percentage – he said 80%, that’s too much) of Lib Dems who are in the movement because Labour has historically not been “left” enough, (and particularly on the wrong side of Iraq/ civil liberties/ tuition fees/ privatisation) then the next 12 months are going to test their loyalty and enthusiasm more than ever.
So – it is nowhere near the tipping point for this Coalition and a General Election remains years away but I am no longer as sure as I was that the country will get to 2015 with the Coalition in place in its current form. I am not sure the Lib Dem grass roots will stay the course given how tough it is going to get. Nobody knows how this is going to play out, but it’s going to be a fascinating and unchartered 12 months.
Kevin Craig is Managing Director of Political Lobbying & Media Relations (PLMR) Limited. First elected to Lambeth Council at the age of 25 he served 9 years as a Councillor before stepping down. In the 2005 he was a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in South Suffolk and in 2010 commented for the Daily Telegraph on the General Election Leaders Debates