Why Lib Dems need to stop worrying and learn to love the coalition

There was a phrase, slipped quietly into Nick Clegg's speech at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Brighton, which caught my ear. Hidden in the activist-pleasing, knockabout section, where the Deputy Prime Minister was having fun at the expense of the Labour Party, were five interesting words.

Clegg asked his audience to imagine how dreadful the Labour Party would be if they were, “left to their own devices,” to run the economy.

Clegg was trying to present the Liberal Democrats as the party that anchors the Coalition Government in the centre ground of British politics, stopping the Tory supermarket trolley from veering off to the right. He hinted at a time after 2015 where the Lib Dems might need to stop a Labour supermarket trolley from veering off to the left. Sadly though, when it comes to shopping transportation metaphors, after the last few weeks’ media coverage, unkind commentators might suggest that, the Liberal Democrats are themselves, a bit of a basket case.

Lib Dem activists clearly enjoyed themselves duffing up the Conservatives in Eastleigh. Hundreds of bobble-hatted party volunteers enthusiastically poked a million pieces of paper through Hampshire letterboxes all saying how very different the Lib Dems are from their coalition partners. However, like it or not, those same activists are going to have to learn to love the coalition. Their political success at the next election will depend on whether the Great British Public learns to love coalition government too.

The strategic problem for the Lib Dems is that no-one at all is running a political PR campaign on behalf of the coalition government. Civil Servants don’t know how to, the Conservatives and Labour have no need to, but for the Liberal Democrats, their survival may depend on it. If you like coalitions, you can get one by voting Liberal Democrat, (or UKIP perhaps.) If you don’t, then you have to vote for either of the two larger parties to govern alone.

Nick Clegg is quietly, when his party will let him, trying to present the Liberal Democrats as a party of pluralist, European style, multi-party government. A party that anchors the government firmly in the centre ground, forcing the Conservatives to think about creating a fairer society and forcing Labour to face facts about the economy. What a few of his advisers were saying, hidden away on the conference fringe, is that behind the scenes, coalition government actually works, forcing politicians to come up with better solutions to the nations’ problems than either party would manage on their own.

When the Liberal Democrats are left to their own devices, as they were in Brighton this weekend, they tend to get into bad tempered rows about civil liberties, sit in lengthy meetings about Land Value Taxation and vote on whether or not to debate motions about the health and welfare of bees. I did all three and loved every minute of it. However, sooner or later the Liberal Democrats are going to have to find a way to convince voters that this coalition government in particular and coalition governments in general are good things. If they don’t, because no-one else will, there won’t be many Lib Dems MPs left after May 2015.

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