Their party conference in Liverpool has been a strange experience for Liberal Democrat activists. There has been exhilaration at finding themselves part of Government for the first time in sixty five years. And there has been alarm, even anguish, at some of the things they find their Government signing up to. The strain is evident. Will it ultimately prove too much?
It was the theme of their leader, Nick Clegg’s speech that the party must ‘hold its nerve. Looking five years ahead to the planned date of the next election, he said: 'Hold our nerve and we will have changed British politics for good. Hold our nerve and we have changed Britain for good.'
His argument was that the last election had given no party a mandate to govern but an obligation on all parties to govern 'differently'. The Lib Dems, by going into Coalition with the Conservatives, were carrying out that obligation in the national interest and, within the Coalition, the Lib Dem voice was making itself heard.
But even as he was setting out the logic of the party’s predicament its members were defying the leadership and voting against Coalition policy. The conference overwhelmingly passed a resolution to campaign against the policy of academies and free schools being driven forward by the Tory education secretary, Michael Gove. It had not been part of the original Coalition agreement and many Lib Dems are hostile to it, believing it will assist pushy, middle class parents and increase unfairness in education.
It is far from being the only Government policy on which the Lib Dem rank and file are deeply apprehensive. Coming down the pike are decisions on replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent, university tuition fees and, most of all, the impending spending cuts where the party takes a different view from their coalition partners.
Many Lib Dem members are already affronted by what they see as their leadership’s about-turn on tackling the Government’s financial deficit during this financial year. The party had campaigned during the election on the platform of delaying cuts until next year but, in forging the Coalition, the leadership acquiesced to the Tory insistence that cuts must start straightaway.
Next month the chancellor, George Osborne, will announce the outcome of the comprehensive spending review which will set public spending targets for the rest of the parliament. The overall aim is for cuts of 25% in most departmental budgets. One of the most sensitive areas, because one of the biggest, is the welfare budget. Many Lib Dems see themselves as being essentially on the left with a mission to protect the poor and they fear the coalition will slash help to the poor.
Nick Clegg insisted in his speech that while cutting the deficit was essential he would ensure that the cuts were applied fairly and that the government would not impose the sort of hardships associated with Margaret Thatcher’s belt-tightening back in the 1980s. Many Lib Dems wait to be convinced, however.
The problem for many of them is not just that they are being asked to swallow policies they find distasteful but that, at a more general political level, they fear where Nick Clegg is leading their party. His defence of the coalition with the Tories is that the Lib Dems had no real choice. The election left the Conservative Party as the only party with which a viable coalition could have been formed and if the Lib Dems had ducked the challenge out of too fastidious a sense of whom they could work with, the party would have seemed to the electorate to be not up to the difficult business of governing, paying the price in subsequent election.
Many Lib Dems accept this logic but remain deeply uneasy. They fear being swallowed up by their larger Conservative partner and some even imagine their own leader would be not unhappy if that were to happen. Mr Clegg lavished praise on David Cameron as someone also trying to build a new type of politics. Some Lib Dems think their leader feels more at home with David Cameron than among them.
But the Deputy Prime Minister insisted that his Lib Dem party would remain independent. He said: “We will take risks in government, but we will never lose our soul. We have not changed our liberal values. Our status is different, but our ambition is the same.” And he went on to rule out a merger with the Tories. ‘The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are and always will be separate parties, with distinct histories and distinct futures.’
This, however, does not wholly reassure his own troops. They see their party slumping in the polls, taking, as they see it, all the flak for the coalition’s policies. Once the cuts are announced they believe this will only get worse. They fear disastrous results in the local elections next May and many of them are worried that next year’s referendum on changing the voting system – an issue dear to their hearts – may well be lost. At next year’s conference they fear the party will be in deep crisis.
The problem is that by then there may be no obvious option for it to take. To pull out of the coalition at that point would be to trigger an election just at the moment when their party would be likely to be slaughtered. So they would just have to soldier on.
But there is one option: that the party could split. Some would stay with Nick Clegg in the coalition but some might split off, either joining Labour directly or, perhaps more likely, setting up an anti-coalition Lib Dem faction intent on fighting the next election with a view to forming a coalition with Labour after it.
History suggests that this is the most likely outcome, for whenever the Liberals went into coalition in the last century they ended up splitting, with factions on the right of the party eventually being merged within the Conservative Party.
It is this which Nick Clegg is most anxious to avoid. So in his speech he asked his party to imagine the sunny future which awaited them if only they did, indeed, hold their nerve – a future in which Liberal Democrat values, so long mere aspiration, could at last be put into effect. The trouble is that many Lib Dems can already imagine a very different future.
- What’s your view? Were the Lib Dems right to form a coalition with the Tories
- Do you think the Lib Dem voice is being heard within the Government or do you think it is being drowned out by the larger Tory voice?
- Are Lib Dem activists right to oppose coalition plans for academies and free schools?
- How far should they take opposition to other likely Government decisions on university tuition fees, Trident and the cuts programme?
- What do you make of the suspicion that Nick Clegg feels more at home in the company of David Cameron than among his own activists?
- Do you believe his claim that he has no intention of making an electoral pact of some sort with the Tories?
- Do you think the party will hold its nerve and do you think it should?
- And what do you think is the most likely outcome: that the party will stay united for the full five years of the Government; that it will pull the plug on the coalition before then; or that it will split into opposing factions before the next election?