I've had a couple of conversations with local LibDem colleagues lately who have been looking rather down in the mouth – poor results on May 5th (despite good results here), doubts about the coalition, doubts about the future. I found myself saying to them that I feel strangely cheerful, and then had to enumerate the reasons why. They are a combination of ethical and political issues.
The first reason is the fact that we're in the coalition in the first place. I think more and more firmly that the party leadership made the right decision – not just the right decision for the party but for the country. The country needed (and still needs) a stable government to get us through this economic crisis. That government is being provided by the LibDems in concert with the Conservatives. It felt unlikely when it was first mooted, but it has happened as it has by and large governed well. The fact that we are able to argue about things like voting reform and the precise nature of changes in the NHS shows that we have done the hard things reasonably well. We need to think in terms of long cycles as well as short ones. Nick Clegg's strategy was to position us to take the credit as much as the conservatives if we are in a good position in a few years time. We are still on course to do exactly that. It's a different experience being in government. When you're in government, people kick you because you're in government. That's a different experience from being kicked because we're Libdems, which we're used to, and it works on a different logic. People often register short term resentment at polls between elections, but give the party credit, albeit grudgingly, at election time. If we hold our nerve, that prize still awaits us. I was very pleased to see Tim Farron say much the same soon after the elections: "Enough doom and gloom, we have the greatest opportunity in the history of our party".
We were even more under pressure a couple of weeks ago with the sharks doing their best to circulate around Chris Huhne. But a week is a long time in politics, and a fortnight even longer. Chris may not be quite out of the woods yet, but he is last fortnight's news – last week's news was Andrew Lansley. And we've even moved on from him – modern politics moves fast.
The sniping will go on. We are viable targets for the media – not just LibDems, but Libdems IN GOVERNMENT, shock horror. Those who loved to hate us still do. The level of bile against us on ConservativeHome remains just the same. Go there and see the comments on... well, on pretty much any post. That's politics. They were spitting just as much bile at us before last year's election and it didn't stop us getting our message across – it won't next time either. And we will get it from the media as well. Last week's Observer's cheaply hostile editorial about the NHS rehashed the old meme “It's all Nick Clegg's fault”. It was mostly about Cameron and the NHS, and it followed a standard, for all papers, editorial line, of declaring that Mr Cameron now has a dilemma between softening the bill and displeasing his right wing or driving it through and thereby displeasing everybody else, thereby attempting to sound weighty and statesmanlike without having to come up with a solution. The LibDems are reduced to an opportunistic bit part, changing our tack because we are concerned all of a sudden for our survival. What do you expect after the setback we've just had? Sail on merrily towards the iceberg? “To change course would be unprincipled”? No, we steer round the iceberg and them resume our intended course when we are able to.
But what I like most of all is that, despite all the pettiness and meanness directed at us, we are showing how grown up politicians can be. And not just politicians in general, but Liberal Democrat politicians. The old excuse that a vote for the LibDems is a wasted vote because they'll never get in to power is shown up for what it is – nonsensical. Being grown up has its downsides of course, not least missing the Short money that gave us a budget with which to oppose. It is perverse that there is no similar budget to allow us to govern, but that is the case, and we must make do – and by and large we are making do. There was another report this week which examined the role the LibDems are playing in government, and was spun by the media to say we're not doing it well. The idea of putting a minister in every department spreads us thin. If we'd chosen a smaller number of ministries to go into we could have concentrated our power and had more of an effect in those departments. No shit, Sherlock? What annoys me most about post-coalition debate is the assumption that, because we haven't got everything we wanted, we have therefore failed. It's a peculiarly British assumption to do with the nature of power. We tend to think that power is a zero sum game and people either have it or don't have it. The concept of shared power seems to be alien to British thinking. Maybe that's why the idea of coalition is so difficult for some people to accept. The assumption behind much media reporting is that because we don't get everything we want, we must have failed. No, we haven't failed. We have one-sixth the number of seats the conservatives have.* On that basis we should get one-sixth of the results, and on the whole we've done better than that. The Guardian's headline, by the way, reads: "Deputy PM's office ineffective, report on coalition government finds. Document says most decisions reached through informal channels rather than formal coalition machinery". In the Guardian's view it's clearly a bad thing, if you read the rest of the article. But I find myself wondering in what way that constitutes a bad thing. I know it's a problem to journalists who can only think in binaries, but governments work on the basis of informal relations as well as formal relations. Nick and Dave get on well, so they're using that. Why should they not? In what way is that somehow unconstitutional or ineffective?
We continue to have to put up with misreporting by media who are perhaps not biassed against us, but just need conflict for a good headline. Vince Cable comes in for more than most. He was headlined as "Cable attacks 'ruthless' Tories" when he called them "ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal". In the interview, which you can listen to on that last link, he said it in a perfectly affable tone of voice, and he went on to say, immediately, in the same sentence, "but that doesn't mean we can't work with them". They're at it again today: "Vince Cable warns GMB against co-ordinated strikes". He is getting a simplistic knee jerk reaction from the GMB, who clearly don't understand coalition politics either.Fortunately, cooler heads area round to give a truer picture. Paul Waugh on PoliticsHome, Why Cable's no Tebbit, points out that Cable is giving the unions the political reality. Cable has no wish to crack down on unions, but there is a very strong body of opinion within the Conservative party that does. A wave of strikes would give them motive and opportunity. Cable counsels wisdom, not quiescence. The media are not helpful to us, but then they never were. We just have to continue to work.
The left wing don't like us, because we're not left wing. Those who used us as a convenient protest vote don't like us because we've grown up. The right wing loathe us because, well, because we're human. We are definitely doing something right. But we need to connect that again to what voters want. Politics is a tough business and it will go on being tough. The rules have changed because we are now in government, but the nature of the game hasn't. It's still true that where we work we win. Besides working we need to hold our nerve, something we have not had to practise so much in the past, and we need a narrative, aversion of events that holds true for us and that we can sell on the doorstep. that narrative is taking some time to emerge, but the bones are there in place:
- coalition does work (and we are proving that)
- we do do a lot of good for the less well off (which again we can prove)
- we have moderated a lot of Conservative policies into sensible ways forward (and we have blunted the glaringly socially authoritarian wing of the Conservative party (something I am delighted about, and so should everybody be who is not a glaringly socially authoritarian Tory. For a glimpse of why see here. I suspect, by the way, that Dave is monumentally pleased that he has the LibDems to lean on and not his own right wing.)
So, to sum up:
- we are still Liberals. That's absolutely clear from the policies we are putting in place and the policies we have prevented from being enacted.
- the media are not helpful to us, but they are no less helpful than they have ever been.
- we need to find, and will find, a new constituency of voters. Those who voted "none of the others" don't have that easy option any more, but there are plenty who will vote for a liberal and capable government in the UK.
- and this time we have a time scale, a long one. It won't matter if we're still unpopular in a year's time, as long as we are building, in policy achievement and in campaigning, towards a sustainable recovery for the country by 2015, because I am as near certain as I can be that that will mean a sustainable recovery for the LibDems. It will be hard work. It always was hard work being a LibDem. But we mustn't lose our nerve.
*Despite having two thirds of their votes. (FPTP is *such* a fair system.)**
**For those unable to detect irony, that was ironic.