After the rise of Cleggmania, the aim of the Liberal Democrats ought to have been to put themselves in a place where they could effectively become the opposition party (i.e. the second party) in the near electoral future. In May 2010, it seemed that entering a coalition to demonstrate to the public was the right coarse of action to take to demonstrate to the electorate that it was a party capable of running the country rather than protesting it’s incumbent government would be a good idea.
In hindsight it would have been better and easier for the Liberal Democrats to have been a critical party of the Conservatives economic plan yet vote through key amendments necessary to keep the government stable, this would have had a number of benefits.
First, the Liberal Democrats could have done a lot more to preserve their liberal ideology, hence their identity, unlike when being a coalition partner to an illiberal political party. They could have been the party airing the view that liberalism does have sensible and practical things to at about modern day British life. The Liberal Democrats would have had more time to oppose the snooper’s charter, oppose secret courts and fight for digital rights to be incorporated into human rights while not being constrained by cabinet collective responsibility. As key figures of the Liberal Democrats were constrained by such responsibility, the rest of the party ended up being constrained to ensure that the coalition didn’t split apart.
On the economy, they could have argued with the Conservatives about the need for fairer cuts to be implemented, in which structural reform of the labour market was necessary in order for the cuts to work in the first place. Downright idiotic policies like the bedroom tax could have been flatly avoided. Yet the Liberals would support the cuts in the name of the national interest, or in some cases abstain so it was a straight Conservative Labour fight in terms of winning the vote (which the Tories would have won).
At the same time promoting the national interest would have been a more resounding message because the public would realise they were voting for policies that they didn’t necessarily agree to help balance the national finances. Principled anti-Tory voters would still have found this problematic but it would warm up to more centrist voters who’d be attracted to the moderating force the Liberal Democrats had in government.
The damage to Nick Clegg’s reputation has been monumental, yet back in 2010 there was enough popularity for him to have been the figurehead of the opposition. He’d been in the ideal place to criticise the Conservatives unsympathetic instincts to the vulnerable while having the luxury to criticise Labour’s previous record in government. With the failings of Ed Miliband as leader of Labour, Clegg could have positioned himself as a genuine alternative to both the Conservatives and Labour. Nicola Sturgeon would call this being the true party of opposition despite only having 50 MPs in the Commons.
Finally, the Liberal Democrats managed to finish in second place in a lot of constituencies back in 2010. Spending time being the effective, thereby de facto, main opposition to the government could very well have given the Liberal Democrats the credibility they needed and wanted to be a party on the national stage. One of the reasons Clegg went into coalition was to show the electorate that the Liberal Democrats were not a bunch of idealists who had little prospect or desire of actually influencing modern Britain.
To look at this from a purely counterfactual perspective would be wrong, they are decisions that could have been made in the early days of the coalition that would have seen better outcomes for the Liberal Democrats. Here is a list of things they could have done, not necessarily implemented, that may have helped their fortunes:
- Either oppose any raising of tuition fees, or ensure PR was at the heart of the electoral reform referendum instead of AV. If one of these had to be sacrificed to achieve the other then so be it. Personally I’d think not raising tuition fees was a higher priority for the long term success of the Lib Dems.
- Not be seen to be too friendly with the Conservatives. The early days of the coalition was almost like long lost friends who’d forgotten each other finally reuniting, rather than being a working relationship to aid the country at a desperate time. It gave the impression that yellow wasn’t all that dissimilar to blue.
- Been more vocal about implementing progressively, rather than regressively, minded cuts to public services and the benefit system.
- Been opposed to cuts to investment that ended up needing to be reserved to stop the detrimental effect on the “recovery” those cuts were having.
- Talked much louder about the Liberal Democrat influence on the coalition while respecting the desire for the Conservatives to do the same. It was too late in the coalition life span that Clegg tried to find ways of differentiating the Lib Dems from the stories, despite the differences being obvious to those in the know.
These points are meant to address the fundamentals problems the Lib Dems faced in the coalition: the loss of the student vote and the assimilation of the Liberal Democrats into a light blue party (deep blue for those on the left), not a golden-yellow one, in the minds of the public.
In hindsight it would have been better for the Liberal Democrats to have been the opposition party. They would have gained further from the detachment the electorate has had over the last five years with the establishment. They would have been better positioned to achieve the aims they desired. Alongside that but the curse of the being the junior party in a coalition would have been avoided. The Liberal Democrats were dealt a terrible hand after the 2010 general election, they did an even worse job of making the most of it.