No party can afford to let down its supporters - especially the Lib Dems

Lessons for Nick Clegg if he is ever to be in a Coalition again

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The Independent Online

These should be happy days for the Liberal Democrats. Policy areas that have always excited them are now topical, urgent, the subject of raging debate across the political spectrum.

In the past the Liberal Democrats might have stood out for their opposition to the war in Iraq and, before that, for daring to argue that public services required more investment. Now they have a distinctive and consistently held point of view on all the big contentious policy areas of our times.

Constitutional reform, normally the driest of topics, suddenly ignites passion well beyond Liberal Democrats. Immigration is the subject of highly charged debates. Europe is back as a policy issue that will re-shape British politics. Rows rage over taxation and fairness. Civil liberties and security are likewise subjects of tense argument.

These are policy areas that have always got Liberal Democrats going in ways that could seem freakish. Now they get all the parties going. Of course there are many voters who take a different view to Nick Clegg’s party on all these themes, but at least the Lib Dems can make their case on each of them with conviction.

As a bonus these are issues that unite Liberal Democrats. They might be split between social democrats and pure free market liberals in some areas, but on issues such as Europe, constitutional reform and immigration they dance together. In addition they have a leader who is an engaging communicator and who looks good on TV. They should be getting out the champagne.

Instead they contemplate an election where they could well be slaughtered. Some polls put them on 6 per cent, and Clegg’s personal ratings are dismal. He faces a dark few months where his integrity will be relentlessly called into question.

The Lib Dems’ role in the Coalition is the cause – or the way they behaved during the early years of the Coalition. The leadership needs to learn the lessons fast. It could be in another coalition next year even if the party loses half its seats. The Liberal Democrats, the party that ached for coalitions, risk being killed by them.

What are those lessons from their first historic taste of power? Clegg and his senior allies made a series of avoidable mistakes in the immediate aftermath of the last election. The most fundamental was to turn away from some of those who had voted for the Liberal Democrats at the election. Clegg was assiduous in consulting his MPs and the wider membership. He had no choice but to do so under his party’s rules.

Still, he engaged widely with members and with considerable skill. In contrast he was far too casual in relation to those who had voted for his party because they had become disillusioned with the perceived rightward drift of new Labour. As that sometimes astute observer of British politics, Tony Blair, put it recently: “The Lib Dems stood to the left of Labour and then joined a government to the right of Labour. No wonder they are in trouble”.

Left-of-centre voters who backed the Liberal Democrats need not have acted as a block to a coalition with the Conservatives, but Clegg should have been far more sensitive to their sense of outrage.

In his joint press conference with David Cameron on the Tuesday after the election he should have addressed these fuming voters directly. This would not have been impossible. He could have uttered reassuring words along these lines: “We are doing this not because we have suddenly become Tory but because we are pluralists who believe in working with other parties.

"I am very conscious that some of you would have preferred an arrangement with Labour..that was not possible partly because of the composition of seats after the election, but I and my colleagues will, in a spirit of compromise and recognising that we are by some considerable margin the smaller party in the coalition, strive to represent the values we espoused at the election..”

Instead he became David Cameron’s cheerleader, literally so at early sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions. The lesson is obvious. Coalition is possible but requires constant dialogue and explanation from leaders to those that had voted for their particular party.

Next, a leader of the smaller party, more than other leaders, needs to have an acute sense of what for them was totemic in the election campaign. Clegg should have insisted that as part of the coalition deal tuition fees were scrapped or kept at their relatively low level, not because he believed in the policy but because the proposition had been central to his party’s pitch. Cameron and George Osborne were so desperate to seize power they would have agreed.

I recall some political commentators arguing that Clegg played a blinder during those coalition negotiations. He did not. The second lesson in another hung parliament is to take a more hardnosed approach to any coalition negotiation and perhaps take more time. A frenzied five days is not long enough.

Another lesson applies. Make a less dreamy assessment of potential partners. During those draining, nerve-shredding five days after the election Clegg told an increasingly wary Paddy Ashdown that Cameron had changed his party and that he was negotiating with a different type of Conservative. This is not a message being delivered in Glasgow at their conference this week. Clegg fell too willingly for the fantasy that Cameron had transformed his party.

We too as an electorate have lessons to learn. Clegg has made mistakes but that does not make him a lying so-and-so. He is a leader who has had to compromise endlessly. Since Margaret Thatcher leaders have felt the need to appear strong at all times. But another hung parliament is possible next year, meaning more compromises over policy are inevitable. We need to get used to the idea that sometimes leaders seem weak because they are in weak positions, not necessarily because they are hopeless or mendacious.

Polls suggest emphatically that is not a lesson voters are willing to learn for now. Most of the electorate is not listening to Clegg and his party at a point when on some issues at least they happen to be worth listening to.