There are a lot of stories doing the rounds about disquiet within the Liberal Democrats over the state of the coalition. The disquiet exists, but runs nowhere near as deep as is sometimes played up in the media. And it has to be set against some clear realities.
Reality check 1 – there was no choice for the Lib Dems after the general election
With the arithmetic produced by our crazy electoral system, there was really no choice but to accept David Cameron’s offer of a coalition. The maths wouldn’t have made a deal with Labour work (Labour didn’t want it anyway, whatever Gordon Brown may say), and if we’d sat tight in splendid opposition and let the Conservatives form a minority government, we’d be facing a second election this autumn which would almost certainly have delivered an overall Tory majority. Then we’d be no better off, and people would be wondering what the Lib Dems were for.
Reality check 2 – things would have been equally bad under a Labour government
Despite the collective amnesia engulfing Labour which convinces them that nothing bad happened before 7 May, Labour would have faced the same economic situation and would have had to take equally brutal measures. Ed Balls has even admitted that Labour’s election pledge to halve the national deficit in four years was unachievable. Any current boost to Labour is simply down to it not being the party that’s doing the dirty work.
Reality check 3 – the current government would have been a lot nastier without the Lib Dems as part of it
To Lib Dems, the government seems a Tory one that’s using our support and doing its own thing anyway. But many Conservatives feel the opposite – that the Lib Dems have too much influence. The reality is that it is a Tory-led government with Lib Dem influence, and that influence is measurable in several ways. We will achieve our aim of a £10,000 income tax threshold by 2015, we will get a referendum on a step towards a fairer voting system, we will get our ‘pupil premium’. There are fringe benefits too, like the renewal of Trident not being funded from general taxation, and the flowering of moderate Tories like Ken Clarke, whose liberal slant to his work as justice minister could never have happened if the Tories ruled alone.
Reality check 4 – all parties lose support when in government and gain it when in opposition
We have been in opposition for 65 years, during which time you pick up a number of supporters. But opposition is a lot easier than government, and when you’re responsible for issues rather than just commenting on them, you lose some of the people you picked up in opposition.
Reality check 5 – the Lib Dems (and previous incarnations) have been unpopular before and have always bounced back
We were unpopular during the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-78, we were hammered by the Greens in the 1989 European elections, and we were down to 11 per cent in the opinion polls three years ago. We always bounce back because there is always a place for a third force alongside the parties representing the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ – a place for imaginative ideas that aren’t beholden to an orthodox or proletarian ideology.
The next couple of years won’t be easy for the Liberal Democrats. I fear we’ll lose some very good councillors next year because of a backlash against our role in tackling the deficit.
But I went into politics to try to change things for the better. At the election we got 23 per cent and the Tories 37 per cent. If we go into government with them, we have to play the junior role, but we’re still achieving things. That’s why we need to hold our nerve – and leave a dignified return open for those people who are leaving us now.