It became clear on Saturday that the result of Thursday’s general election had changed the nature of the Liberal Democrats for good.
For years we have struggled to gain a degree of influence, developing policies that we felt were right for Britain – in the sense of being socially just and environmentally geared to the future. And we knew that when we got a hung parliament, that would be our chance.
To build up to that, we developed a broad voter base, effectively made up of three groups of people: pure Lib Dems who support us for what we stand for, Tory sympathisers who will vote Lib Dem but never Labour, and Labour supporters who will vote Lib Dem but never Conservative.
From the moment we got into the situation where we had to choose between a deal with the Conservatives, a deal with Labour, or remaining in opposition – a situation we had longed for – one of those three groups was going to be seriously cheesed off.
Over the weekend I got lots of emails from Labour supporters saying ‘Don’t do it’. On Monday night when we heard the Lib Dems were talking to Labour, I got some from Conservative supporters saying ‘Don’t do it’. And yes, I got one from a lifelong Liberal saying we should remain in opposition – I guess that confirms the view of some historians that liberalism is a movement rooted in opposition that finds government difficult.
I don’t subscribe to that view. I believe we are in this game to improve people’s lives, and this was our chance. Nick Clegg and the rest of us campaigned for a package of policies, highlighted by four headline aims (fairer taxes, ‘green’ jobs, more money for education, and cleaner politics), and was unremitting in his insistence that people should vote for what we stood for, not who our possible partners in government might be.
The Con-Lib deal that has been agreed as the basis for the new coalition has concessions on all four fronts. The biggest is a Conservative commitment to raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, albeit phased over the next few years. That is a genuinely Lib Dem initiative that would never have happened with a majority Tory government – nor even with a majority Labour government, despite it being something I believe Labour should have been advocating.
Other concessions include the ‘pupil premium’ we’ve been pushing for, and an environmental boost to the economy – for those of us dubious about David Cameron’s ‘green’ credentials and worried he might abandon the environment once in power, our presence could well mean something. And there will be political reform, even if it may not go as far as some of us in the Lib Dems want.
So am I happy with this deal? – not totally. Am I happy to accept it? – yes. Is that a contradiction? – I don’t think so.
As a child getting the hang of politics, I knew I was not a Conservative before I knew whether I was pro-Labour or pro-Liberal. I still feel that way, to the point where I am uncomfortable doing a deal with the Conservatives. I suspect Cameron is a moderately decent guy, but George Osborne leaves me cold, as do plenty of others in the Tory ranks, from grandees to young Turks. To that extent I fully understand the feelings of those who oscillate between Labour and Lib Dem who feel let down by this deal (even if I wish some of those who had written to me to express their views had been a little less abusive).
But what was the alternative? The parliamentary arithmetic meant a Lab-Lib deal could only happen as part of a ‘rainbow alliance’ that would have been messy and could have faltered the moment an MP or two fell ill. And would we have gained by staying in opposition under a minority government or a grand coalition? – people would have said we just couldn’t decide, and would have wondered what the point of the Lib Dems was.
There are those who have accused Nick Clegg of being duplicitous over the negotiations, most notably Malcolm Rifkind, who said Nick’s negotiating has been straight out of the Robert Mugabe school of government. I met Rifkind when he was transport secretary and found him a gentle and level-headed man, but he’s gone off the deep end here.
His remarks are grossly unfair. Nick always said the party with the biggest mandate had to have first go at forming a government, but once it became clear negotiations with us had got bogged down, he had to talk to Labour. Failure to do so would have led to a longer period of post-election instability that would have led to uncertainty on the currency and stock markets.
More importantly, the fact that the Lib Dems talked to Labour and found a deal couldn’t be done should make the coalition we’ve got more palatable for everyone. Of course some Labour spin doctors will try to say we’ve abandoned socially progressive politics, but that is just a self-serving way of trying to swell Labour ranks with disaffected Lib Dem supporters.
I don’t know how it’s going to end, and yes, I am apprehensive about it. But I entered politics in the hope of improving not just the society that has served me personally so well, but also the mechanisms by which we do business. That inevitably means cooperation, a word I used a lot in my election campaigning, and the Con-Lib deal is the first exercise in that cooperation.
No-one would bat an eyelid if we had a war on and formed a coalition. Because the threat is economic and environmental rather than military, the need for a coalition seems less clear-cut. But it’s a massive threat and, following Thursday’s vote, this seems the best and most optimistic way of proceeding.
All I would ask is that people who have been well-disposed towards the Lib Dems give it a chance before rushing to judgement.